Civil service is not the problem
The April 9 Spokesman-Review reported on the previous evening’s Spokane City Council meeting, with the headline, “Mayor gets more control over fire, police hires.” The gist of the article is that the council, in a 4-3 vote, adopted new versions of the city municipal code establishing six new departments in the police department and seven new departments in the fire department. In part, the context was the Use of Force Commission’s effort to change the “police culture.”
In short, the new police chief gets the opportunity to hire and appoint the heads of the traditional functioning police units within the department without the civil service constraints of having to pass a promotional civil service test. What does this mean for the public and personnel on the department?
Generally, civil service was intended to curtail the patronage system by which governmental appointments were based on who you knew politically, or as a favor payoff or buy-in. For example, just before I joined the Spokane Police Department, a chief was promoted from the patrol ranks because his relative was a police commissioner. Subsequently, on a change of government, this person reverted to patrol officer again. In addition, in the 1950s, you became a detective based on the subjective favor of the chief.
Subsequently, in efforts to professionalize the police service, promotions were justified by passing a civil service test based on merit in combination with your proficiency score. While not perfect, the system was fair from an internal standpoint, and for years had a stabilizing effect on department operations, and service to the public.
Then, politics reared its ugly head again when the department started having operational problems due to lack of leadership, underfunding and under-manning. There was the “South Hill rapist” problem with justified criticism from the public and media. Solutions were demanded. The City Council in the early to middle 1980s ordered an outside study of the department called the McManus Report. Changes resulted in formation of the major crimes unit, property crimes task force, efforts to computerize case management and crime analysis.
One recommendation not followed was the chief’s need to cut back on the number of deputy chiefs. He guarded his staff levels. Civil service captains were traditional divisional commanders bridging the policymakers and traditional police operations such as patrol, traffic, investigations, communications and records. Captains were the “loyal vigilantes” buffering the working troops from department politics.
Beginning in 2004-2005, due to budget issues, the chief’s administrative core was again protected by vacating the captain rank and position. In essence, higher-paid deputy chiefs began doing captains’ work. Eventually, through a change of chiefs, these deputy chiefs morphed into majors and commanders by title. One captain had managed the uniform division and one managed investigations. Eventually, the captain position was reinstated.
Problems continued for the department including the “girl in the firehouse incident” that could be attributed to poor investigative procedures, and then there was the Otto Zehm case, resulting in his death and an officer going to prison. A police cover-up was alleged. If so, it was the result of actions by the top levels of City Hall and the department, not at the rank-and-file level.
Now, the City Council has approved the “castor oil” prescribed by Mayor David Condon, which is an effort to undermine civil service. This action will have no effect as a solution if leadership of the city and department continues to be subpar. Civil service is the scapegoat.
The chief has his discretion to hire his administrators from the civil service list. The chief does not need additional layers of administration over traditional police functions, whether called divisions or pejoratively “departments.”
The Zehm case as handled by the city is an example of a cover-up to minimize liability and is in fact political corruption not dealt with by the council vote to correct the “police culture.”
Giving the chief power to hire or appoint six to 12 administrative appointees is overkill and will result in corrosive politics and cronyism pervading the department over time.
Condon wants to kill off civil service as the solution to his “governing problems.” The majority of the City Council appears to support his position. Time will tell who is right and, in the meantime, the real question is whether the public will get the police service it deserves, or whether it will be more of the same because of budget shortfalls and understaffing.
Robert J. Allen is a Gonzaga University School of Law graduate and retired investigative captain for the Spokane Police Department.