After years of controversy and calls for outside scrutiny, U.S. Department of Justice officials will arrive next week to begin reviewing police shootings and other uses of force by Spokane police officers.
The rare federal intervention, conducted by mutual agreement with City Hall, will examine the Police Department’s culture and all incidents over the past four years involving officers’ use of deadly and nonlethal force. Spokane police officers have shot and killed eight people since March 2009.
Spokane Mayor David Condon and police Chief Frank Straub made the announcement Friday during a progress report outlining numerous changes they’ve already made within the department based on suggestions by the city’s Use of Force Commission.
“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.”
With the 70 percent vote Tuesday approving independent investigative powers for the police ombudsman, “the citizens have spoken,” Condon said. “The ultimate goal is to build trust back into the Police Department. I’m fully committed.”
Patrol officers soon will be wearing body cameras, and police cars are being equipped with dash cameras to provide greater accountability. Training has been revamped, internal investigative procedures have been improved, and officers are being issued new, standardized batons and Tasers as well as other equipment.
The federal review falls short of the full “pattern and practice” type of probe that was conducted in Seattle last year, but it is still considered daunting. Straub said the review that the city and the Justice Department will conduct in Spokane is what’s known as a 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 is familiar with the reviews because he’s served as a federal consultant to a similar program, but the Spokane effort would be just the second of its kind by the Justice Department’s Community Oriented Policing Services.
The only other similar federal effort occurred in 2011 when officials reviewed five years of police-involved shootings by the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department.
Former Mayor Mary Verner first called for the full federal “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 violent 2006 confrontation with Otto Zehm.
The 36-year-old mentally disabled janitor died two days after being beaten and shocked with a Taser by Thompson and several other officers. The city eventually settled a civil suit for $1.67 million as part of the investigation that one Justice Department official 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 looked at 492 uses of force by officers between 2007 and 2011. Of those, police administrators cleared the officer’s actions in every case.
Straub said federal officials will review all the reports that fall within the past four years. The review will include interviews with every police officer and many community stakeholders, 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.
Straub said if the program doesn’t work, Justice Department officials could still call for the more-restrictive pattern and practice review.
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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