Spokane police Chief Frank Straub said Wednesday that his department has made significant progress on every one of the 26 recommendations issued by the city’s Use of Force Commission in February, including an anticipated purchase contract for body cameras that will be worn by officers at all times.
Straub’s lengthy presentation, which came a day shy of marking his first year as the city’s top cop, took place in the City Council chambers before a crowd of community members, city department heads and about 20 police department employees.
It was also a victory lap of sorts as Straub detailed a drop in the city’s crime rate and improved morale among officers, and as a longtime critic of the police department called the progress on the commission’s recommendations and the new chief’s work “breathtaking.”
Straub’s presentation to the commission comes six months after the body issued its final report. Earlier this year, the city used $1.1 million it had in reserves to help implement the commission’s recommendations.
While Otto Zehm was mentioned only three times during Wednesday’s meeting, the commission was formed in the wake of former Officer Karl Thompson’s conviction for the beating of Zehm, who was mistakenly implicated in a theft, shocked by police with a Taser and in police custody when he died.
Straub said the department was starting to emerge from its “bunker mentality” that came from being besieged by the community for Zehm’s death and the department’s mishandling of the subsequent investigation.
Invoking Sir Robert Peel, who created London’s metropolitan police force, Straub said the community and police department are inextricable.
“We are the people of Spokane, and the people of Spokane are the Spokane Police Department,” said Straub, who added that implementing the commission’s recommendations is important to his “re-engineering” of the department.
The recommendations focused on reforming four aspects of the department: its culture; policies and practices; citizen oversight and city administration of the department. But the recommendations can also be boiled down to three words: training, transparency and standardization.
Conducting a “culture audit” of the department was one of the top suggestions of the commission. On that front, Straub developed a strategic plan, has hired people from outside of the force for top positions, sent department employees to observe other police forces and held discussions with the LGBTQ and immigrant communities.
Upgrading the training given to officers who instruct others was another of the top suggestions by the commission.
According to Straub, a third of all patrol staff have received crisis intervention training, which teaches officers how to deal with people with mental health issues, among other things. All commissioned members in the department are expected receive the training by next summer.
Sgt. Lydia Taylor demonstrated a body camera that will be worn by officers, which is about the size of a small flashlight and can be clipped on the uniform or connected to glasses or headband.
Taylor also showed commission members the standard-issue Taser officers will use, an X-26, and the one type of collapsible baton that will be issued to officers.
Despite the overall triumphant tone of the presentation and the positive reception by the commission, there were some concerns from commissioners.
Earl “Marty” Martin, the commission’s chairman and executive vice president of Gonzaga University, questioned why his board’s second recommendation – to bring transparency to negotiations between police labor unions and the city – wasn’t addressed.
Nancy Isserlis, the city attorney, said the current negotiations were ruled by an old agreement, which only allowed a mediator to give public comments.
Mayor David Condon, who was also present, said his administration gave regular updates on the negotiations to City Council members, something he said hadn’t been done before.
Commissioner Ivan Bush, the former equal opportunity officer for Spokane Public Schools, asked if the department would seek to diversify its force when hiring new officers. Straub said they were being “particularly attentive” to this and that they had just hired an officer from the Native American community.
Commissioner Susan Hammond, the former director of Outpatient and Psychology Services at Spokane Mental Health, said she was glad to see that officers were getting new training on how to deal with people with mental health issues.
Hammond also brought up Zehm, saying that the confrontation leading to his death and its handling by the department was the “compelling reason for the formation of this commission.”
Tim Connor, spokesman for the Center for Justice, has been reporting on police wrongdoing for 30 years, and he was involved with the legal team that represented Zehm’s family. Though he’s disappointed with the lack of transparency in police union negotiations, he said he was very happy with the commission’s work.
“This is what democracy looks like,” he said, adding that the commission and Straub have brought “changes I didn’t expect to see in my lifetime.”