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Shawn Vestal: Police shooting follow-up will determine progress

So here it is: Money-where-your-mouth-is time for the Spokane Police Department.

Officers shot a robbery suspect to death on Wednesday night, right outside his front door. Chief Frank Straub described what happened in this manner: The man refused “multiple verbal commands” to drop his gun and comply with officers, and officers were “engaging” him both inside the house and when he emerged from the house. “At some point,” he said, officers feared for their own lives and the community’s safety, and shot the man.

“We were talking to him in the house, we continued to talk to him when he came out of the house,” Straub said.

OK. Now cue video. A neighbor used a cellphone to capture the scene, and though it’s grainy and distant, and though it doesn’t show anything about the long period of time where officers were communicating with the man while he was inside the house, it shows a few things clearly. The man was shot immediately upon leaving his house – within a second or two. His arms are hanging down at his sides, though it’s possible he’s starting to raise the gun. If there was any outside conversation between the cops and him, it was very, very brief.

“He came out with his gun pointed down and they shot him seven times,” the woman who shot the video told KREM.

Another witness said, “All I heard them say was, ‘Drop it,’ and within seconds of them saying, ‘Drop it,’ … seven to nine shots were fired.”

Here we are again. An official version of events, and a seemingly contradictory video.

What happens now will tell us more about public safety and public accountability and change in the Spokane Police Department than a million PowerPoint slide shows and news conferences. Will the apparent contradictions between the video and the chief’s statements be taken seriously and explored and explained? Or will they be dismissed? Will we be encouraged, once again, to disbelieve our eyes? Or will the police department – and the ombudsman – seek a true answer and explanation?

Wednesday’s shooting followed a standoff between police and the man in a home near Maple Street and Grace Avenue. The man is suspected in the recent armed robbery of a Baskin-Robbins, and police had the home under surveillance for several hours as they awaited a search warrant.

It may be that the video fails to tell the story it seems to. The man in the house had disregarded many commands to come out and surrender, and when he did come out, there was a gun in his hand, police said. It may be that officers responded correctly, that the video doesn’t show everything, that the man said something – the limitations of the video are many. And yet it is hard to fit the chief’s version of what happened into that frame. Something doesn’t compute.

This can’t be a replay of the past. The police department cannot proceed from a baseline certainty that the shoot was good. That, remember, was the official message from the first minute of the Otto Zehm case: justified! That presumption clouded everything that followed, and everything that followed poisoned the ability of citizens to take the word of the police at face value, because by the time the feds got their hands on it, their bad faith had been laid bare.

There is a lot of reason to feel that this is a much-changed department. Thursday was the one-year report on the progress of the police department and the city on the recommendations of the Use of Force Commission. The department has done a lot to address the commission’s concerns: expanding training, moving forward on body cameras, establishing community outreach events, making speedier responses to requests for public information. A Department of Justice team has visited Spokane three times and will be producing a report and recommendations of its own this summer. And the new ombudsman system – whose detractors raise some valid concerns but which I think ultimately offers a lot of promise – will be moving forward with the selection of the citizens to sit on the panel that will oversee it.

William Hyslop, a member of the Use of Force Commission, told Straub on Thursday, “You’ve made great progress.”

That’s true, as far as it goes. But the way the department answers the questions raised – but by no means answered – by the video will tell us even more about how much progress has been made.

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