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Spokane Use of Force Commission wraps up with praise for police progress

In its final meeting before it disbands, the city’s Use of Force Commission lauded the improvements made by the Spokane Police Department in the last two years.

But members also questioned why two of its recommendations have not been fully completed: a culture audit of the department and departmentwide use of body cameras. The two recommendations were among the 26 the commission gave to the police department for implementation.

The commission was formed in early 2012 in response to the federal conviction of a police officer for using excessive force against Otto Zehm, who died in police custody six years earlier.

Commissioner Susan Hammond praised the department for the improvements over the last two years, particularly the crisis intervention training. That training likely led to the reduction of use of force by officers, she said.

“This is just a commendable outcome,” Hammond said. “You have far exceeded anything I could have hoped for.”

Police Chief Frank Straub said the U.S. Department of Justice did a random survey of officers and he considers that enough to satisfy the culture audit recommendation. However, the DOJ specifically stated that the survey should not be considered a culture audit.

Commission Chairman Earl Martin said the main goal of the culture audit is to provide a clear idea of the formal and informal systems in use in the department to provide a clear understanding of how the agency works. Straub said he was confident that he knows how the department works.

“We meet regularly with our officers,” Straub said. “I think there’s constant communication.”

Straub also was questioned about efforts to increase transparency surrounding negotiations with the Spokane Police Guild, the union that represents officers. He told the commission that he’s working toward that goal but there has to be some privacy in negotiations “in order to advance the ball.”

“I don’t think any of us want to be in the shadows,” he said.

Straub said he is moving forward with body cameras. The department purchased 200 of them and 25 are now in use, he said. That number should increase next month when the department partners with Arizona State University on a study measuring the effect of body cameras on police and community interactions.

Commissioner Bill Hyslop questioned whether officers accept the cameras.

“I think the officers more and more are seeing the value of wearing body cameras,” Straub said. Officers do have some concerns about the privacy of those they interview, however.

One of the stumbling blocks preventing the widespread use of the cameras has been the Police Guild, which demanded that their use be subject to contract negotiations. Straub told the commission that the guild is now “very accepting” of the cameras.

Hammond questioned whether Straub planned to eventually have all 200 cameras in use.

“If at the end of the day that makes sense to everyone, that’s what we’ll do,” Straub said.

Straub credited increased staffing and better training, including crisis intervention training for nearly every officer in the department, for dropping both the overall crime rate in 2014 and the number of use of force incidents by police.

Friday’s meeting was the last for the Use of Force Commission, which will file a response with the mayor’s office. Straub, however, promised that the improvements would continue.

“The one thing this department has learned is that we’re not done,” he said.

Martin ended the meeting with a moment of silence for Zehm, repeating a tribute the commission made during its first meeting.


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