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Friday, July 19, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Spokane

Panelists say police chief candidates qualified

Members of the panels convened by Mayor David Condon to interview two finalists for the Spokane police chief job said Thursday they were generally impressed by the candidates, but declined to speak specifically about the discussions due to a confidentiality agreement signed beforehand.

“They both seem like super guys with lots of experience,” said Lt. Dave McCabe, president of the Spokane Police Lieutenants and Captains Association, who served on the mayor’s Community Policing interview panel. Robert Lehner, the 61-year-old chief of police in Elk Grove, California, and 54-year-old Dominic Rizzi Jr., chief in Yakima, spoke with four panels of community members and news media outlets before a public forum held in the West Central neighborhood Wednesday night.

“Hopefully they’ll be able to bring us the leadership we’re looking for,” McCabe added.

The document, obtained through a public records request, does not prohibit panelists from discussing the candidates or their qualifications with others. Instead, panelists agreed to disclose any conflicts of interest with the city’s Human Resources Department and to turn over any written materials or rankings they produced during their interviews with the two candidates.

Brian Coddington, Condon’s spokesman, said such agreements usually contain a provision limiting interviewers from discussing candidates and their opinions after questioning ends. But that language was removed from the agreement given to panelists Wednesday.

“In this case, because there’s a great deal of interest, and a desire to be as transparent as possible, that language has been removed,” Coddington said.

Even so, the document was labeled “Interview Confidentiality Agreement and Ethics Agreement,” and many participants said they thought they were restricted from saying much publicly.

City Council President Ben Stuckart said Thursday the requirement of a confidentiality agreement was odd.

“I’ve never signed a confidentiality agreement in an interview process,” Stuckart said. “That’s new to me.”

Panelists contacted Thursday for their opinions of the two candidates and the interview process, said they were hesitant to comment because of the agreement they signed. But most said Rizzi and Lehner appeared ready to take over the department.

“It was nice to talk to people as qualified as they were,” said Maj. Eric Olsen of the Spokane Police Department.

David Brown Eagle, vice chairman of the Spokane Tribal Council, was scheduled to sit in on one of the panels with the finalists Wednesday, but could not make it to City Hall, he said. Instead, he attended the public forum Wednesday night.

“I felt one was a good politician. The other one was a good police officer,” Brown Eagle said, declining to say which finalist he was referring to in each case. “It depends on what the community wants. I believe both of them would do well.”

Brian Newberry, former wing commander at Fairchild Air Force Base and current executive director of the nonprofit Leadership Spokane, said he believed the interviews were successful and that both candidates showed they would be able to lead.

“I left the day excited,” Newberry said. “I got to meet two candidates who I think are both qualified, who can come here and make a positive difference.”

Much of the criticism Thursday came from the truncated timetable panelists had with the two finalists, the limited field and the format of the public interview, echoing criticisms from audience members.

Capt. Tracie Meidl, part of the department’s temporary command structure set up by outgoing Law Enforcement Director Jim McDevitt, said the hourlong public meeting Wednesday night may not have been enough to convince residents of the candidates’ expertise.

“I didn’t think it gave the citizens the availability to see them, more of their capabilities and their personalities,” Meidl said.

Rick Eichstaedt, executive director for the Center for Justice and an interview panelist, said Condon should have considered a public question-and-answer period, like that used in the vetting of police ombudsman finalists, which revealed the candidates’ telling opinions about the criminal justice system.

“Granted, that’s hard, but it’s going to be a hard job being the chief of police,” Eichstaedt said. “If they can’t handle that, maybe they shouldn’t be here.”

Eichstaedt said in the brief amount of time panelists had with both finalists, they did appear to be qualified, though he was concerned neither addressed at length issues of racial prejudice in policing. He said both “lacked the wow factor.”

McCabe said he was disappointed that only two finalists were left for interviews, after Capt. James Dermody of the Seattle Police Department dropped out of consideration early Wednesday.

“I wish that we had more candidates,” McCabe said.

Stuckart said he did not sign a portion of the confidentiality agreement that would have prohibited him from contacting Lehner and Rizzi by phone following the interviews Wednesday. He cited the City Council’s role in confirming Condon’s appointment as the reason.

“After the mayor picks his person, it comes to council,” Stuckart said. “I will not be hesitating to contact one or two of them, outside of this process.”

Condon said within a couple days he’d make his pick to fill the office of chief, which has been filled on a temporary basis since Frank Straub was forced out of office in October.

Interview panelists completed a “forced ranking,” Coddington said, which required them to put a “1” or “2” next to Lehner and Rizzi’s name as their preference for chief. Those rankings were handed over to the Human Resources department and will be shared with the mayor, who will make the final decision, Coddington said.

This story was changed on July 22, 2016 to correct the misspelling of Maj. Eric Olsen.

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