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Police use of force review wrapping up

Panel looks at process of internal investigations

Spokane’s quest to restore police accountability will largely succeed or fail based on the department’s ability to improve how it investigates its own officers, a consultant concluded.

Police procedure expert Michael Gennaco, whose work helped steer the city’s Use of Force Commission, found Spokane Police officials sometimes did a great job documenting officers’ use of force. Gennaco also found problems, however, including investigators asking leading questions, failing to ask key questions of officers and not interviewing key witnesses.

“We want thorough and competent use-of-force investigations,” Commission chairman Earl “Marty” Martin said. “You are only going to get to that outcome if you have good processes. That includes interviewing all witnesses, not using leading questions or getting answers by email or phone messages.”

Today is the last day residents can contribute comments about the commission’s nearly yearlong look into the policies and procedures of the Spokane Police Department. Martin said he wants to hear from anyone who had personal contact or expertise that could help the commission write a final report on its 26 recommendations to Mayor David Condon in February.

“It’s absolutely essential that the public trust the officers in the department and have integrity in the department as a whole,” Martin said. “These (internal) investigations are one of the visible ways that the public decides to find trust.”

Police Chief Frank Straub has said in the past that he is committed to instituting many of the changes recommended by the Use of Force Commission. He also said he has 12 years experience working in internal affairs investigations, which will help him determine what needs to be changed. Straub couldn’t be reached for comment.

Gennaco reviewed two police shootings and multiple reports documenting Spokane officers’ use of force. He found that two officers were not interviewed until five months after the Nov. 12, 2010, shooting of 29-year-old Ethan A. Corporon, who was seen approaching a restaurant with a shotgun.

“As a result, one officer was no longer able to recall some of the details of the incident with any specificity,” Gennaco wrote. “That same officer raised a concern during the interview and thought that the administrative interview should have occurred much closer in time to the incident so that he could have reached ‘closure’ about the incident.”

In an unrelated case, department officials asked an officer about his actions leading up to a use-of-force incident, but didn’t ask about allegations made by the person arrested that the officer had used knee and elbow blows to his back during the arrest.

“To the credit of the review panel, the investigative shortcoming was recognized and a request was made to address the issue,” Gennaco wrote. “Instead of re-interviewing the subject officer, however, the officer was asked to respond – via email – to the follow-up questions.” The officer admitted putting his knee in the middle of the suspect’s back but denied delivering elbow and knee strikes.

In another case, officers noted that there had been one or possibly two women nearby when the incident occurred.

“These potential witnesses were not interviewed and the investigative file did not indicate whether efforts were made to contact them,” Gennaco wrote. “In our review, we found a chronic failure to obtain statements from all potential witnesses.”

In one instance, a resident provided the name of an eyewitness to the police encounter, but the eyewitness “was not interviewed but his voice mail message about the incident was used to justify the force,” Gennaco wrote. “Voice mail messages should never suffice as a substitute for a full investigative review.”

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