Efforts to reform the police department and enhance community involvement have made Spokane a national model, said Mayor David Condon and police Chief Frank Straub, who were at the White House on Thursday as part of a forum on community policing.
Condon said Spokane’s voluntary two-year review by the U.S. Department of Justice, the creation of the Criminal Justice Commission and the citizen-led effort at expanding oversight through an empowered ombudsman have put it ahead of other cities struggling with trust and legitimacy in their police departments.
Straub, who Condon hired in part to make the department more accountable and transparent, echoed Condon.
“We are clearly leading the state of Washington in many ways,” Straub said. “We’re being recognized in the police profession as leaders in multiple areas, well beyond just body cameras.”
Straub pointed to the city’s work on crisis intervention training, and police involvement with youth led by Lt. Tracie Meidl, as areas of recognized progress.
The 45-minute discussion was led by Jerry Abramson, the president’s director of intergovernmental affairs, and also featured Boston police Commissioner Bill Evans and former Boston police officer and its current chaplain, the Rev. Gary Adams.
The talk ranged over many topics, including how officers should interact with the community and people with mental illnesses, and how to deal with issues of race.
Evans, who ran in the 2013 Boston Marathon and helped design a plan of action after two bombs went off near the finish line, said the sole goal of police should not be to “come out as crime fighters.” Instead, he said, they should “basically be social workers and be part of the community.”
“We have our own ice cream truck, believe it or not,” he said. “It’s sort of comical, but we make more inroads with that ice cream truck. We’re in the process of buying another one for $70,000.”
Condon, who is running for re-election, said it was Otto Zehm’s death in 2006 following a confrontation with Spokane police officers that partly led to his election in 2011.
“One of the reasons I’m in office is a critical incident that happened in our community,” he said.
At the forum, Condon mainly talked about the outreach the city has done under his administration, including on social media and through tele-town halls and surveys.
He said the surveys, which he acknowledged had a small sample size, showed that 66 percent of the public had confidence in Spokane police when he took office. Now it’s at 94 percent, Condon said, noting that the number may not necessarily be accurate but it “gives us a sense of the direction we’re going.”
Straub said 150 meetings were held with the community to discuss the use of body cameras in 2013.
“It also became a joke. If you were having a birthday party for your kids, and you wanted a body camera demonstration, we would do it,” Straub said.
The chief said 95 randomly selected police officers are wearing cameras, part of a project done in collaboration with Arizona State University.
Every Monday, the university reviews about 30 contacts between camera-wearing cops and a person in the community, interviewing everyone involved to look into the “effect of interactions between community members and officers,” Straub said, noting that the biggest challenge is dealing with the footage that is collected.
“Buying the cameras is easy,” he said. “The storage, the redaction and dealing with the privacy issues are the incredibly challenging things we have to confront as a profession.”
Straub said the police department has received 175 public record requests for body camera footage, the vast majority from the news media. Only one request has come in asking for all the footage from the department’s pilot program, but Straub said police worked with the requester and did not have to provide all footage.
Straub said it takes three hours of “person time” to redact one hour of footage.
Meidl, the Spokane police lieutenant, and Pastor Shon Davis also attended the forum. All four attended work sessions and discussions throughout the day.
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