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Shawn Vestal: Spokane police reform to get federal report card

Shawn Vestal
Shawn Vestal

The feds are getting ready to give the Spokane Police Department a report card of sorts – a wide-ranging set of recommendations arising from a two-year review of department practices.

It will be several weeks before the public is allowed to see the details. But next week, the team from the Department of Justice’s COPS program will be back in town to go over the preliminary recommendations with city officials and to establish a schedule for how and when the department will meet what are expected to be about 40 recommendations.

“It’s a binding contract,” Chief Frank Straub said this week. “It’s a road map that the Department of Justice will hold the city to, no matter if David Condon is the mayor or Frank Straub is the chief.”

The COPS review is a big deal – a thorough review of the SPD’s use of force, its culture, its practices. It will be a crucial third-party review of whether the city is putting its money where its mouth is on reform and accountability.

It is another critical piece among several critical pieces of the city’s efforts over the past few years to address the widespread dissatisfaction with the department. Though many of these steps have been debated along the way, if you line them up and consider them as a whole, it is a remarkable chronology starting in 2011: Karl Thompson went to prison, the city stopped fighting Otto Zehm’s family, a large majority of city residents voted for independent oversight of the police, a Use of Force Commission was created to examine the police department and order changes, an ordinance governing the ombudsman process and establishing a citizens commission was passed by the City Council, the police department started wearing body cameras …

The COPS process is collaborative, as opposed to other cities like Seattle, where the feds have come in uninvited and ordered the police to change their ways. The city will still be held to the DOJ recommendations, and the DOJ will still have the authority to take enforcement action if the city doesn’t meet the requirements.

“To me, it’s a natural progression of what we’ve been able to do the last three years,” Condon said.

Condon said he didn’t know what the recommendations would be, and Straub said that he couldn’t comment on the recommendations before their public release by the DOJ. Straub did say that one recommendation will be that the city conduct a formal staffing study to see if it has enough police officers; though the city has budgeted for 25 new hires, Spokane still falls below national averages for the number of officers per 1,000 residents, Straub said.

Though the report will surely include criticisms, Straub said it also includes “an acknowledgment of the tremendous work the men and women of this department have done since the Use of Force Commission …

“There is some good criticism in there,” he said. “There are some good challenges to us to improve our business practices.”

Condon said he was interviewed twice by DOJ representatives, and while there were some “very pointed questions and rightfully so,” he said the team also had some interest in – and praise for – the steps the city has already taken.

He said they asked a lot of questions that were prefaced with comments like, “ ‘We didn’t see this in other communities. How were you able to do this?’ ”

The DOJ team has been to Spokane four times. Its members have interviewed scores of police officers, city officials and others throughout the criminal justice system. On Wednesday and Thursday, the team will be back in town to go over their preliminary recommendations with Straub and other city officials. That internal report is not considered public. Straub said Spokane officials may request “very minor tweaks” but the bulk of the next step is establishing a schedule for complying with the recommendations.

The final series of recommendations are expected in late December. The DOJ will then perform audits, followed by public reports, at six-month intervals over the next year and a half.

Are city officials concerned that they might get hammered by the DOJ report? Is it an anxious time? Neither Straub nor Condon seems to expect strong condemnation.

“I’m an accountability person, so I’ve gotten used to this across the organization,” Condon said. “To have that third party is in some respects good for us.”

The city’s police ombudsman, Tim Burns, is awaiting the results eagerly as well. Burns’ role has been central in the past few years of reform efforts, and the DOJ team is specifically looking at his office and its authority as well.

The five-member citizens commission that directs Burns’ work has been appointed and started to meet. It will now give him direction in cases where he and the police department differ over the need for internal investigations. This has been the crux of many complaints about the new system the city put in place – that Burns lacks the full independence to conduct his own separate investigations, and is mostly limited to observing the SPD’s internal affairs investigations and determining if he thinks they are sufficient. If they’re not, the commission can seek a third-party investigation.

Burns and Straub have recently reached a point of disagreement over a decision whether to investigate a use-of-force complaint in an incident where a suspect was taken to the ground and suffered a minor injury. The conflict could be a bellwether for how the new system will work – the commission voted to have Burns ask Straub to reconsider and investigate.

Burns said there has been an increased “caution” between him and the department, but he thinks the working relationship is sound.

“I bought in and still believe that Frank Straub was and is and continues to be the right guy,” he said. “I think the police department is in a really good place compared to where it was two years ago – three, four, five years ago. … I want to wait and see what the DOJ has to say in their report and the police department, mayor and City Council’s response to it.”

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

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