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Vestal: Stephens’ demotion puts police at crossroads again

Wed., March 6, 2013, midnight

Will the Scott Stephens debacle take us to a new ring of hell with regard to the city and the cops?

Will it carry us from the age of the unfirable cop into the age of the undemotable assistant police chief? Or might it, instead, be a necessary speed bump on the road to a better police department?

There is reason to fear that it’s the first. Chief among them: Stephens’ attorney, Bob Dunn. Dunn could force Simon to take back Garfunkel. His success at getting the city to rehire or back down from discipline against police officers is so constant that the city no longer even climbs into the ring with him. It just throws in a towel full of money.

But there is also reason to hope it’s the latter – that l’affaire Stephens grows mostly out of the collision between the old guard and a new way, and that a new way is utterly, absolutely crucial for Spokane. Mayor David Condon sees it that way, of course, and he argues that what he’s doing by bringing in a well-respected former federal judge to investigate is part of a larger pattern to restore public faith in the department and bring down the crime rate.

On this question, Condon has been impressive. He got the Zehm suit settled. He created a commission that identified problems and suggested solutions in the department. He and his new chief, Frank Straub, invited the feds to investigate the department’s policies and procedures – a move originally proposed by his predecessor, Mary Verner. That’s a radical, non-butt-covering decision that subjects the department to outside review and binding consequences. He and Straub have undertaken a reorganization meant to put more cops on the street – part of a shuffling Stephens was caught up in.

A lot of people have talked a good game when it comes to the police. Condon is laying down actual tracks and not avoiding the ticklish issue of “culture” – the defensiveness and denial that infects the department.

How large a part of that is the Stephens matter? Too soon to say. But a part of the department’s cultural makeup – it seems to me, as an outsider – is an immunity to discipline, an invulnerability to consequence, a sense of entitlement and a resistance to change. The Stephens case grows from his dissatisfaction with not being named, or even considered, as permanent police chief.

Dunn says Straub broke the rules governing civil service employees when he demoted Stephens from assistant chief to captain. Ordinarily, he would have returned to the rank of major, but that rank had been eliminated as part of the reorganization.

Stephens was placed on paid administrative leave Dec. 20 after complaining to a colleague that he wasn’t being treated fairly; word was passed to Straub that Stephens said he was going to “go postal,” which Stephens denies saying.

Now retired federal judge Michael Hogan will conduct an investigation into Stephens’ conduct. What seems likely to emerge is a vigorous, and possibly unresolved, he said-she said.

But all of that aside – what reasonable scenario involves Scott Stephens continuing as one of Straub’s top deputies? Doesn’t it make sense that a new boss would pick his own leadership team? And I can’t be the only person who has lost patience with yet another lawsuit threat hanging over the head of the city – and especially one whose foundational, bottom-line grievance seems to be: I should have been a contender!

Dunn says my lack of patience is misplaced. I should be fed up, he says, with a city administrative system that repeatedly violates the rules, whether it’s the civil service commission rules or negotiated labor agreements. It was a problem with Anne Kirkpatrick, and it appears to be a problem with the new regime, he said.

“You have certain rules and regulations you have to follow,” he said. “You can get rid of anybody at any time. Just follow the damn rules.”

Dunn attributed his success in cases against the city to this: “I read pretty well. … When someone says they’ve been unfairly treated, I read the rules and regulations and I lay that against the facts.”

Most of the facts in this case are still to come. Meanwhile, Condon says he’s concerned about some other facts – the city’s crime rate, in particular – and that changes are necessary.

“I have a goal of (Spokane) being the safest city of our size,” Condon said. “That’s not going to be easy. … I still have to wake up in the middle of the night and say, ‘Am I doing the right thing?’ ”

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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