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Use of Force and Snowmageddon: A tale of Spokane’s savings account

Snowmageddon 2008 and Spokane's Use of Force Commission don't have much in common.

One was the harshest winter in a generation that paralyzed Spokane, and the other aims to reform the Spokane Police Department. 

But both are tied together by one of the city's savings accounts.

Earlier this month, we wrote about Mayor David Condon's 2014 budget proposal, in which he proposed adding 25 new officers to the force by paying off an old street bond with funds primarily from the contigency reserve. At that time, we said the fund was “intended to be saved for emergencies, such as 'Snowmageddon' in 2008, Ice Storm '96 and the eruption of Mount St. Helens.”

Which is true. That's the intent of the fund. But at last week's Finance Committee meeting, city Finance Director Gavin Cooley detailed how the fund has been used in the last ten years. Only one of the five times it's been dipped into could be described as an emergency, as most people would define it. (Of course, city leaders could make a case for the other four.)

In 2003, they dipped into the fund for a $1 million withdrawal, which went towards paying for early retirements for some of the city's workers. 

In 2008, $500,000 was taken out for the apocalyptic Snowmageddon, which dumped 100 inches of snow on us, snarling traffic, shutting the city down and cursing the lives of every person to lift a snow shovel that dreaded winter. 

In 2009, another $400,000 was taken out for more early retirements.

In 2011, the city used $336,000 to purchase JustWare, a fancy new computer program used to integrate our region's criminal justice system.

And earlier this year, $1.112 million of contingency reserve funding was used to implement some recommendations from the Use of Force Commission, which we wrote about today.

So, obviously, the fund isn't used simply to combat the excesses of Mother Nature. She just isn't that punishing in the Inland Northwest. And that's why the city is reviewing how it uses this fund. 

But for the time being, the city is using it for one time purposes, which go toward budget reduction, police accountability or snow plows. We can all agree on that last one.

Report: SPD lacks certified instructors

None of the Spokane Police Department's defensive tactics instructors are certified by the state and may have relied on a flawed legal interpretation while teaching officers when it's OK to use deadly force, the city's Use of Force Commission has found.

“In fact, no officers in the department have received instructor re-certification since 2007,” the group, empaneled by Mayor David Condon, wrote in its 177-page draft report.

The commission was formed to review the police department's operations following widespread public outcry over the city's handling of the fatal 2006 confrontation with Otto Zehm, who was wrongly implicated in a potential theft and then beaten by officers until he lost consciousness and died two days later. Former SPD Officer Karl Thompson Jr. was ordered last year to serve a little over four years in prison after being convicted of excessive use of force and lying to investigators.

Spokane City Hall is hoping residents will review the report and send their thoughts and comments on its findings. A copy of the report, along with a link for where you can comment, can be found here: http://www.spokanecity.org/services/articles/?ArticleID=2927. The city is accepting public comments through Jan. 30.

The commission made 26 recommendations for improving the police department, which Condon and new Police Chief Frank Straub are reviewing and promise to embrace. The draft report was unveiled Dec. 20.

Among them is the need to ensure that officers are being properly advised in when deadly force is authorized, and that they're being trained in how to de-escalate potentially violent confrontations.

Questions over potentially flawed deadly force training emerged after the commission was given copies of the department's training manuals that advised officers they were free to use deadly force whenever they believed their life or the lives of others is in danger.

That subjective standard has no basis in state or federal law, the commission — whose members include lawyers and a retired state Supreme Court justice — concluded. The proper legal standard is objective rather than subjective, requiring evidence supporting the officer's conclusions.

“In weighing the government's interest in the use of force, courts will examine, among other relevant factors, whether the subject posed an immediate threat to officer or public safety, the severity of the crime at issue, whether the suspect was actively resisting arrest or attempting to escape, and whether law enforcement could have used other methods to accomplish its purpose,” the report notes. “The Commission is concerned that these legal rules are not as well understood across the SPD as they need to be.”

STA wins high-profile fan

We may have found a spokesman for a Spokane Transit Authority ad campaign.

Former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Gerry Alexander has been flying to Spokane every couple weeks in the last few months to serve as one of the Spokane's five Use of Force commissioners.

After he disembarks from his plane at Spokane International Airport, he takes a Spokane Transit Authority bus downtown.

“I really enjoy that bus ride,” Alexander said. “It's really a handy way to get in from the Airport.”

(This praise for the bus was unsolicited when I asked him a few questions after Thursday's Use of Force Commission meeting.)

Alexander is reimbursed for his plane trip and often a meal when he's in Spokane. He usually flies in the morning and flies out after the meeting

He does not bother getting reimbursed for the $1.50 bus ride.

Retired state chief justice surprised by health care ruling

Retired state Supreme Court Justice Gerry Alexander was in Spokane Thursday for the last scheduled meeting of the city's Use of Force Commission.

Afterward, we asked him about his thoughts about this morning's U.S. Supreme Court decision that upheld most of the Affordable Care Act.

“I had previously thought that they would strike the mandate down,” said Alexander, outside the Spokane City Council chambers. “It seemed to me that they were taking the Commerce Clause where it hadn't gone before.”

Alexander, who was appointed to the Use of Force Commission by Mayor David Condon, said he followed the case, but hadn't read the ruling Thursday afternoon. The majority of justices agreed with Alexander about the Commerce Clause, but a different majority upheld the law under Congress's taxing authority.

“I felt all along they could pass a tax for this,” Alexander said.

Retired chief justice will serve on Zehm overview committee

Gerry Alexander, who retired last year as the chief justice of the Washington State Supreme Court, will serve on the city's Use of Force Commission.

The commission was created last year by former Mayor Mary Verner to review the city's handling of the police confrontation that resulted in the death of Otto Zehm in 2006. Mayor David Condon endorsed the concept and supported her choice of former Gonzaga Law School Dean Earl Martin to lead it.

Membership of the five-member committee was announced at a City Council meeting on Monday by Council President Ben Stuckart. The council is set to confirm the membership next week.

The vice chairman will be former attorney Bill Hyslop, who served as the U.S. attorney for Eastern Washington during the administration of President George H.W. Bush.

The other two members will be Ivan Bush, the Spokane Public Schools' equal opportunity officer; and Susan Hammond, director of outpatient and psychiatric services for Spokane Mental Health.

Condon has said he hopes the commission concluds its review by June.