Several community members on Wednesday thanked the city of Spokane’s Use of Force Commission for months of work, and police Chief Frank Straub said he and Mayor David Condon will soon announce plans to implement suggested changes in the police department.
The commission held the first of two public hearings to comment on 26 recommendations it made Dec. 20. The report is part of Condon’s stated goal of restoring community trust in the department following the conviction of former Officer Karl F. Thompson Jr. for using excessive force and lying to investigators about his 2006 confrontation with Otto Zehm.
The commission is seeking public comment before finalizing the report to give to Condon later this year.
Martha Lou Johnson thanked the commission for the recommendations, but noted that many of the suggested changes – such as improving internal investigations and training officers to de-escalate potentially violent situations – are interrelated.
“My concern is whether all the parts will be implemented,” Johnson said. The changes will require “political will and significant resources. I do not believe we can afford to shelve this plan. We owe it to ourselves and Otto Zehm.”
Straub, who spoke after the hearing, said he and Condon plan to move quickly to institute many of the suggested changes. He said the first group of 25 to 30 officers will soon receive crisis intervention training, designed to help officers cope with high-stress situations involving the mentally ill.
Another group will receive the training this fall, and all 273 officers should receive that training by the end of next year.
“That’s why I came here: to re-engineer the police department,” Straub said. “We not only have the political will, but the will of the entire command staff.”
Some changes, in areas such as legal advice and representation by the City Attorney’s Office, have already been made. Other suggestions, such as putting body cameras on officers, will take more time and money to accomplish, Straub said.
“We have to get up every day and discuss our business practices,” he said.
The department’s top three priorities are reducing crime and violent crime, implementing the suggested changes and re-establishing community involvement with the department, he said.
“We have every intention of implementing” the changes suggested by the commission, he said.
Leo DiValentino, who moved to Spokane several years ago from El Paso, Texas, told the commission he worked with the El Paso police on a crisis intervention plan after that department had two officer-involved shootings and a third person died at the hands of first responders. All three cases involved people with mental disorders.
“In 2 1/2 years, we trained over 1,300 police officers,” said DiValentino, whose stepson also has a mental disorder. The department didn’t have any similar occurrences of in-custody deaths for 15 years after the training, he said.
“If you can’t deal in the first 15 minutes and stabilize the situation, usually it escalates out of control,” DiValentino said.