After years of controversy and calls for outside scrutiny, U.S. Justice Department officials will arrive next week to begin reviewing police shootings and other use of force by Spokane Police officers.
The federal review, being conducted by mutual agreement with the city, will examine the police department’s culture and all incidents over the past four years involving officers’ use of force. That includes confrontations in which batons and other physical but non-fatal methods were used to subdue suspects.
Spokane Mayor David Condon and Police Chief Frank Straub made the announcement today during a progress report of changes suggested by the city’s Use of Force Commission to rebuild public trust in the department.
“We are opening the windows, the door and taking the sheets off the bed and have at it,” Straub said. “Tell us what we are doing right and wrong and tell us how to improve our business practices.”
Voters this week approved independent investigative powers for the Police Ombudsman.
“The citizens have spoken,” Condon said, referring to the 70 percent approval. “The ultimate goal is to build trust back into the police department. I’m fully committed.”
While the federal review will not be a full “pattern and practice” review of all the department’s policies and procedures, similar to that done in Seattle last year, Straub said the city and Justice Department will conduct what’s known as a the Technical Assistance Project.
The program will pay to send consultants to work with police officials to identify problems that need to be fixed, Condon said.
“It’s not a case where we say ‘thanks for the report’ and nothing gets done,” Condon said. “Their recommendations are enforceable by civil rights action.”
Straub said he has worked as a consultant for a similar program, but the Spokane effort would only be the second of its kind by the Justice Department’s Community Oriented Policing Services.
The only similar effort occurred in 2011 when federal officials reviewed five years of police-involved shootings by the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department.
“The idea was, if a Zehm-type situation occurred, the technical assistance program would come in right away … so we wouldn’t have what we have today,” Straub said.
Former Mayor Mary Verner called first called for the full “pattern and practice” review in November 2011, after former Officer Karl F. Thompson Jr. was convicted of using excessive force and lying to investigators following his 2006 confrontation with Otto Zehm.
The 36-year-old mentally disabled janitor suffered more than a dozen baton strikes and several shocks with a Taser during his struggle with Thompson and several other officers. They eventually hogtied him and placed a plastic mask over his face. Zehm stopped breathing and died two days later.
The city eventually settled a civil suit for $1.67 million as part of the investigation that one justice department labeled an “extensive cover-up.”
U.S. Attorney Mike Ormsby said he was not party to the discussions that shaped the upcoming review. But he applauded Condon and Straub for showing a willingness to work with federal officials.
“After the Zehm incident almost seven years ago, the city changed how it reviewed the use of force claims,” Ormsby said. “I think they are focusing on the more recent practices.”
During the city’s Use of Force Commission review, police officials reported last April that the department reviewed 492 uses of force by officers between 2007 and 2011. Of those 492 reports, of which 60 also generated excessive-force complaints by citizens, police brass cleared the officer’s actions in every case.
Straub said federal officials will review every one of those reports that fall within the past four years. The review will include interviews with every single police officer and many community stake holders, such as the public interest law firm Center for Justice.
“I could have said, ‘No thank you.’ But we want the transparency,” Straub said. “We want the Department of Justice in here.”
Ormsby confirmed that federal officials likely would not have agreed to the less-restrictive technical assistance model had Straub and Condon not been willing to receive it.
“The technical assistance model is one where the city is certainly going to have to devote some time and energy, but most of the financial expenditure for bringing in experts is spent by the department of justice,” Ormsby said. “Because it’s a collaborative process, meaning all the parties working together, I have no reason to believe that the city is not going to be committed to implementing the recommendations.”
Straub said if the program doesn’t work, Justice Department officials could still call for the more-restrictive pattern and practice review.
“It is a very laborious process and it gives the city very little say,” Straub said, “and they very typically are an expensive process.”
Under the technical assistance program, Straub said the department can accept the federal recommendations, or they can enter what’s known as a consent decree where a federal judge forces the department to change.
“When you end up under a consent decree, the city bears the full cost. But under the technical assistance program, the DOJ covers the cost of the consultant and pays for the training,” Straub said. “It’s the carrot, not the stick, but the stick is right there. If we blow it, we’ll end up with the consent decree.”
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