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Shawn Vestal: Hard work remains to shift Spokane police culture

Fri., Feb. 7, 2014

A lot of positive changes have taken place in and around the Spokane Police Department. Those changes should be credited and appreciated.

But how much change has occurred in the hearts and minds of the members of the Spokane Police Department?

If this seems like a squishy, bleeding-heart question, consider: When the mayor’s Use of Force Commission produced its report in December 2012, among its chief concerns was the department’s “culture.” Its first recommendation was that the city conduct a “culture audit” to get a sense of how the attitudes and beliefs of police officers informally but powerfully affect the relationship between them and the public.

In the commission’s words:

“Appreciating that the organization is made up of many individuals of good faith who are doing their best in a noble profession, the Commission nevertheless sees room for improvement in the department’s underlying culture. In encounters with SPD members, some members of the Commission were struck by a sense of demoralization or defensiveness by some within the ranks and, at the same time, a lack of appreciation for the extent of the breach of trust that has occurred between the SPD and the community that it serves. The Commission believes that the SPD’s culture needs to be improved when it comes to issues of professionalism, transparency, public mindedness, and generosity of service, especially towards community members from marginalized populations.”

This is why it’s not so easy to just “move on” from the Otto Zehm case, as some would urge. Karl Thompson went to prison. Those who supported him – in ways that were frequently appalling – remain. It is, no doubt, unproductive to simply bring this up repeatedly. It is also unproductive to pretend it isn’t there.

Thus the commission’s recommendation for a culture audit. The commission’s report draws a bright line between administrative culture and the internal, “informal centers of power and influence” in the department – the culture of the rank and file.

 Among the very many steps the city has taken to improve its police department, it has not taken this one. Nor are there immediate plans to do so. That does not mean that there has not been progress on this front; there has. One of the more positive developments, in terms of transparency and accountability, has been the presence of a Department of Justice team that has visited town as part of its two-year review of police procedures and practices.

Mayor David Condon and Chief Frank Straub invited the DOJ in – itself a positive sign. That team is conducting interviews with people in and around the department. Might that serve as the audit?

Earl “Marty” Martin, the chairman of the Use of Force Commission, said he considers the response to the commission’s report still a work in progress, but that he has not seen the culture audit he and his fellow commissioners had in mind. He said his impression from members of the DOJ team was that, “No, they weren’t going to be doing a culture audit and what was called for in our recommendation.”

Straub said he thought the DOJ work could satisfy that recommendation. It’s being done by an outside party, it involves interviewing people within and without the department, and it will get into questions surrounding culture, attitudes and police interaction with the community.

He also notes that many of the changes underway, either directly or indirectly, are part of the long-term, difficult work of making cultural change. Shifting the department to a neighborhood-based precinct organization puts officers into direct contact with the public, where they are more visible and more accountable. He noted that public responses to surveys taken as the city has held meetings regarding its ombudsman proposals so far seem to suggest that both the public and officers themselves feel there is a change in attitudes underway.

“They seem to indicate we’re moving in the right direction,” Straub said.

Both Straub and Condon showed a lot of the right spirit on the front end of the process. The danger becomes, as time passes, the rising desire to consider things fixed, solved, over. Straub, who took over a little more than a year ago, said the culture is improving, the relationship between the public and police is mending, and there’s still more to do.

“You don’t change an organization’s culture … by sending people to class or to seminars or conferences,” he said. “It is a slow, deliberate, methodical and painful process. … It will take more than 14 and a half months to change the culture.”

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

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