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Spokane police chief, ombudsman say they want to rewrite use-of-force policy

FILE - Spokane Police patrol car. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
FILE - Spokane Police patrol car. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

Just a few months on the job, Spokane police Ombudsman Bart Logue had a front-row seat to the type of officer-involved shootings that community oversight committees were created for.

In April 2016, Michael Kurtz, huddled outside of the House of Charity shelter in downtown Spokane, called 911 and pleaded with police to shoot and kill him. As he walked slowly toward one officer crouched behind his vehicle, he held a knife squarely to his chest, screaming “Kill me! Kill me!”

The officer backed up, loaded a Taser and shot the barbs. They were ineffective. Kurtz kept walking closer. He kept shouting.

Two officers eventually fired their weapons, killing him. The shooting was later ruled as justified by Spokane County Prosecutor Larry Haskell.

But Logue, who was chosen for a three-year post five months later, hasn’t been able to shake the incident from his mind. Which is why in October, he reached out to police Chief Craig Meidl with a simple question: Can we do anything more to reduce the number of officer-involved shooting fatalities in Spokane?

To his surprise, Meidl said: Absolutely.

“His ‘yes’ came so fast, I didn’t even have a plan in mind,” Logue said last week. “He was all about it.”

Spokane, unlike other municipalities, is vague in its application of less-than-lethal tactics as laid out in the police department’s use-of-force policy, Logue said. Specifically, there’s little clarity in the department’s treatment of what Logue calls the “sanctity of life.”

In looking at other department’s policies and best practices nationwide, Logue discovered that, whereas other cities’ agencies will provide specifics on how to deescalate a situation and enforce less-lethal alternatives, Spokane does not.

Instead, the policy refers to “deadly force” as something an officer can do “to protect themselves or others from what the officer reasonably believes would be an imminent threat of serious bodily injury or death.” Opportunities for de-escalation are largely left to the discretion and training of officers.

“I was surprised when I really started looking at the police policy, that there was not a preservation of life, or sanctity of life in their policy, which is pretty standard,” Logue said. “A lot of these things that we’re talking about won’t be a big shift in thought. Just a small shift in policy.”

The policy also states that officers can use deadly force to stop a fleeing person if the officer has reason to believe he or she could inflict harm on others.

In Oakland, Logue said, police employ a “minimal reliance on force to resolve incidents,” and a requirement to de-escalate, which he said are the main driving force behind the city’s recent feat of having zero officer-involved shooting fatalities in 2016.

In talking with Meidl, it turns out the police chief has been contemplating the same change.

“I’ll tell you, the world is not getting safer, and what that means is we need to look at our tactics,” Meidl said by phone Thursday. “How do we keep our officers safer and take a suspect into custody safer?”

In researching best practice nationwide, Meidl said he discovered policies that could fit in Spokane. And even though de-escalation points and less-lethal tactics already were training topics in police academy, the chief said it would be more appropriate to have the policy mirror the training more closely.

Still in the early stages of discussion, no concrete plan has been ironed out, Meidl and Logue said. In fact, Logue went to the Office of Police Ombudsman Commission just last week to approve a collaboration with the police department and to provide suggestions before a formal recommendation is submitted on Nov. 20.

In a speech, he delivered to the commission members last Tuesday, Logue suggested the commission hold a special public meeting before the end of 2017 to gather community feedback. After that, it’s to the drawing board, and then a proposal would go to the City Council.

Meidl, who was appointed chief of police by Spokane Mayor David Condon in October 2016, said the day can’t come soon enough.

“Bart asked, ‘Well, when do you want me to start working with your staff?’ ” Meidl said. “And I said ‘last week.’ I’m ready.”