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Thu., March 7, 2013, midnight

Editorial: City leaders on right path to improve police culture

The push for rebuilding public trust in the Spokane Police Department continues, with the Use of Force Commission accepting the city’s request to conduct three reviews of the department’s progress in adopting recommendations.

The panel, consisting of experts in law enforcement, legal matters and mental illness, produced its findings in December after nine public hearings. Then, after soliciting public comment, the final report was updated with a recommendation based on citizens’ input – namely, the call for officers to behave more professionally and respectfully, particularly toward the more marginalized members of the community.

The report acknowledges that none of this would have happened if it hadn’t been for the tragic Otto Zehm case. The city is backing the extensive reforms in police practices, but it wants to make sure the department follows through, so it asked the panel to review the changes after six months, one year and two years.

If you doubt changes are needed, consider that when the department itself reviewed 492 cases of officer-reported force, it couldn’t find a single case from 2007-2011 in which excessive force was used. The standard used for “excessive” wouldn’t have flagged the Zehm case either.

But the city has a new police chief, a new mayor, a new city attorney and, seemingly, a new attitude. They all want to change the culture and some of the practices of the police force.

The panel issued many recommendations, and some of the ones that stand out to us are: the use of body cameras to record police interactions with the public; giving the office of the ombudsman investigatory powers; forming a citizens advisory board for the ombudsman; pursuing accreditation for police practices; training to help officers de-escalate confrontations with the mentally ill, and increased transparency during collective bargaining.

The report states that some of the cultural problems within the department have been caused by the unions, and that the perception among those interviewed is that they are “having a negative influence on the department’s operations, its reputation, and its credibility within the community.” In addition, the report notes that many officers either aren’t aware of this or haven’t grasped its significance. The panel also discounts the notion that union members be compensated for making changes that will help them become more effective officers.

As for the use of force itself, the report says officers must change the mindset that citizens dictate the amount of force that will be used. Instead, the panel outlined strategies for officers to learn so that they can control situations before they turn violent.

In response to the news about progress reports, police Chief Frank Straub said, “Our goal remains to earn back the public’s trust one day at a time.”

So far, the city’s new leaders are making all the right moves.

To respond to this editorial online, go to and click on Opinion under the Topics menu.

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