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Shawn Vestal: Spokane police reform report card a mixed bag

Sat., Sept. 7, 2013

I read it so you don’t have to.

The Spokane Police Department’s Six-Month Progress Report on the city’s Use of Force Commission Recommendations, I mean.

The progress report fills two enormous binders and charts the steps taken to improve the SPD, in response to the suggestions outlined by a citizens commission. It is filled with concrete responses to the commission, packed in among a whole lot of filler. Agendas from training conferences. Promotional materials for training systems and gear. Unabridged copies of policies and plans. Photographs of the mayor cutting a ribbon.

If you’re wondering what time the “hosted reception” at the Internal Affairs and Critical Incidents Conference at The Flamingo in Las Vegas began on Nov. 7, 2012, it’s in there. If you’re hoping to peruse scores and scores of PowerPoint slides, completely out of context, they are in there. If you’d like to examine certificate after certificate for the completion of this or that, they are in there, every one.

It all adds up to an impressive-looking paper mountain.

I’d estimate that a single binder – and a much smaller one – would contain the substantial information that’s buried in these two large ones, but it’s hardly the first overstuffed government report. And there is important information in there, as well as information that’s simply interesting.

The Use of Force Commission and, now, the SPD’s response to it, has been a crucial and impressive process so far. Born out of the Otto Zehm tragedy and the city’s million missteps afterward, the commission took a thorough look at the Spokane Police Department and issued 26 recommendations. The department is responding in concrete ways: moving forward on getting body cameras, implementing a promising new strategy focused on data and neighborhoods, cooperating with a Department of Justice review, and focusing on expanding training.

There are also the odd corners and crevices of the report, the kinds of unexpected nuggets that are inevitable when everything plus the kitchen sink has been included.

Here, haphazardly, are a few:

• In May, Chief Frank Straub changed department policy in a small but positive way: When an officer points a firearm at someone, it is now considered a “use of force,” which requires a supervisor to complete a report on the incident and provide justification for the action.

• There is a startling amount of entrepreneurial opportunity around training and equipment. Coming across the marketing materials for such companies can be jarring or darkly comical, as this brochure for the Taser X26P: “Everything you love about the original TASER X26 … only better!” Or this description of the Lateral Vascular Neck Restraint: “The LVNR is the number one law enforcement system of neck restraint – standing, kneeling or on the ground. … Result: No death, injury or litigation for excessive use of force for 40 years against agencies using the certified Lateral Vascular Neck Restraint (LVNR) System!”

• Materials from a training session for police supervisors on excessive force painted a stark picture of the worst-case thinking that must be a part of their outlook. Supervisors need “consequent clairvoyance,” or “the ability to see the potential harm in every situation. To develop this important supervisory talent, you must combine an inquiring mind with an innate mistrust of everything.”

It’s a work in progress, this department and its progress. The citizens commission’s top recommendation was to address issues of “culture” within the SPD: The sense that the habits, attitudes, ideas and practices of lots of police officers do not align with what many in the community would expect. That there is a bunker mentality, an us-against-them view; the infamous and ugly saluting of the felon Karl Thompson in front of his victim’s family was the pre-eminent example of this. The commission’s report, issued in December, put it this way:

“(T)he Commission is convinced that there is concern in this community that the current culture of the SPD does not promote transparency or an atmosphere of generous service and continuous quality improvement. … The City should retain qualified professionals to perform an institutional audit of the SPD’s culture and its influence on employee behavior. This audit should enable the Mayor and the Chief of Police to determine whether officers and civilian employees think, feel and act the way leadership believes they should, and it can provide a baseline for future improvements.”

The progress report contains many pages of responses to this recommendation, but none, so far as I can tell, that include this kind of audit. There is one survey – an assessment of how well the department aligns with the “community policing philosophy” – and the responses to it are as opaque and un-useful as possible. For a citizen, they are, literally, meaningless.

So change is afoot in the police department, and that’s good. But the cultural issues were placed at the top of the commission’s list for a reason. For now, the progress and the progress report must be greeted with a lot of optimism, and just a touch of consequent clairvoyance.

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

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