August 25, 2013 in Opinion

Editorial: Recent spate of violence will test our progress

 

Less than 24 hours after Spokane police Chief Frank Straub described the progress toward meeting the recommendations of a Use of Force Commission, his officers shot a road-rage suspect to death.

Delbert “Shorty” Belton, a World War II veteran, was beaten to death by two young assailants.

And less than 48 hours later, most of the city’s law enforcement resources, plus those of Spokane County and State of Washington, were surrounding a pawn shop where an armed man holed up until coaxed to come out. No one died.

As of Saturday afternoon, one of Belton’s alleged killers had surrendered, and police were looking for his accomplice. Both are black, Belton was white, and though police dismiss suspicions race played a factor, that aspect of the crime has been magnified by another ugly incident in Oklahoma involving three young black men and a white victim.

Magnified, too, by the pending 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and Martin Luther King Jr.’s electrifying “I Have a Dream” speech. How faint his words seem in days like these past few. How futile his call for nonviolence.

On the opposite page are the recollections of Jerrelene Williamson and daughter Jennifer Roseman, who write eloquently of the hopes and disappointments of King’s legacy. We can add nothing.

Nor do we want to get ahead of the investigations into the three crimes that erupted in our streets last week, except to note the differences between the shooting of Dan C. Jones and the death of Otto Zehm, also at the hands of Spokane police.

Zehm made no offensive act and had no history of violence. Jones rammed one civilian vehicle – twice – and was shot when he also rammed police vehicles despite warnings to desist and calls to surrender. He had committed violent crimes in the past. There were mental health issues, which always test the capacity of officers to respond appropriately.

In Zehm’s case, the results were disastrous.

Training for these kinds of encounters is among the Use of Force Commission’s recommendations and has already begun. So is the adoption of body cameras, which will go a long way toward removing doubts about the reliability of officer reports.

We are optimistic about the department’s new direction and the reported improvement in morale. Straub had cause to take a bow for his department Wednesday. Now, the handling of the Jones shooting and cooperation with the independent investigation will show Spokane residents just how far Spokane police have emerged from the bunker that has isolated officers from citizens.

The community faces its own test: Overwhelmingly white, with a large population of veterans, can Spokane fairly judge Belton’s alleged killers?

Again, we are optimistic. Over the last few decades, the Inland Northwest has beaten back the haters.

For now, the community should keep its thoughts with Belton’s family and friends, and with Jones’ family as well. They’ve had a tough journey.

To respond to this editorial online, go to www.spokesman.com and click on Opinion under the Topics menu.

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