Use-of-force case leaves questions
Ombudsman won’t certify outcome of internal probe
Tue., Jan. 25, 2011
Brian Greear remembers the sirens that prompted him to stop his car. But the 27-year-old Spokane man says he can’t remember what happened before he awoke face down in a South Hill street with a police officer’s knee in his back.
“I just heard ‘Stop resisting! Stop resisting,’ ” he said.
Greear’s arrest last July on suspicion of reckless driving, resisting arrest and driving with a suspended license has led to a disagreement between the Spokane Police Department and police Ombudsman Tim Burns, who has refused to certify the department’s internal investigation into a witness’s complaint of excessive force used against Greear.
Burns questions an administrative review panel’s recommendation to exonerate the two accused officers. But police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick, who acted on the recommendation, said Burns doesn’t have the legal authority to make such a claim because his oversight is limited to internal investigations, not the later administrative review panels made up of police leaders.
“I don’t look at it as a substantive issue. To me, it’s just a legal question,” Kirkpatrick said. “What is Tim Burns’ authority and is the (panel) part of the investigation?”
Burns, who started work as the city’s first police ombudsman in August 2009, disagrees.
“My position is, If not me, then who?” he said.
Regardless of his legal authority, Burns said he feels it’s important to express his concerns about every aspect of an internal probe.
“If I don’t point out that I think things are flawed, then the presumption would be things are not,” he said. “If I’m the only civilian who has the opportunity to review this stuff, and I don’t take the opportunity to say what I see, are there really checks and balances in place?”
Burns asked the review panel – to better justify its ruling that the officers who arrested Greear did nothing wrong. He said he can’t see the correlation between the finding and a dozen witness statements that raise questions about the officers’ conduct.
“There’s just not a rational explanation,” he said.
The probe is one of three internal investigations Burns has refused to certify as “timely, thorough and objective” since the City Council appointed him Spokane’s first ombudsman 18 months ago. He reviewed about 65 investigations last year. Another 15 internal complaints are still under investigation by the department’s internal affairs division.
Greear’s case is the only one in which Burns criticizes not just the investigation but the conclusion of the department review panel.
Greear was headed home in his red Honda Accord on July 30 when he heard police sirens. Officers Shaidon Storch and Scott Haney wrote in a probable cause affidavit supporting misdemeanor charges against Greear that he fled a traffic stop for reckless driving and that they removed him from the car after he stopped on a lawn at South Napa Street and East 37th Avenue.
Greear denies fleeing from police and said he got out of his car with his hands up and lost consciousness when police slammed him to the pavement.
“I’ve been knocked out twice in my life, and that was definitely one time,” Greear said.
He said officers taunted him on the way to the police station and at the jail as blood poured from his face and covered his shirt. He said jailers tossed his bloodied shirt in a garbage can.
His girlfriend cleaned gravel from his face when he got home about five hours after his arrest.
“Everything was just totally bogus,” Greear said.
A couple months later, internal affairs investigator Sgt. Dave McCabe showed up at Greear’s home on West Gordon Avenue to talk about his arrest. Witnesses Greear didn’t know had complained to police that the officers used excessive force.
“I didn’t even know you could file complaints against the police,” Greear said.
Police would not release the internal affairs investigation because the officers were exonerated. The witness who filed the complaint has not been publicly identified.
Steve Sherman, who lives near the intersection where Greear was arrested, said he witnessed the arrest but that his view was obstructed by Greear’s car door.
Sherman said an older couple who had an unobstructed view of the incident were very critical of police, and he believes they might have made the complaint. “I would see no reason why those people would fabricate,” he said.
Sherman said after seeing a “big pool of blood” where Greear was arrested, “It seemed a little much.”
A detective said Greear had smashed his head against the patrol car. Sherman said, “To me, something just didn’t ring true about that.”
Sherman told McCabe what he saw in an interview on Sept. 28. He questioned why Greear was charged with resisting arrest.
“He used a lot of four-letter words, but he shouldn’t be charged with resisting,” Sherman said. “He couldn’t resist – he had two cops pinning him down.”
Other concerns raised
Spokane police Lt. Craig Meidl, who reviews internal investigations, said witnesses gave conflicting statements while the officers gave consistent accounts.
“Four witnesses, normal Joe Citizens, said, ‘Oh my gosh, those officers did this.’ But there’s also witnesses who said ‘absolutely did not happen. The guy was the one being aggressive,’ ” Meidl said. But Storch and Haney were “consistent in their reports, they’re consistent in their interviews” and consistent with the other witnesses, he said. Along with concerns about the panel recommending Kirkpatrick exonerate Storch and Haney, Burns, the ombudsman, pointed to several weeks-long gaps in the investigation in which no work was completed. The 123-day investigation included 76 days of inactivity.
Police told him the gaps resulted from scheduled vacations. Fine, Burns said, but plan ahead so that won’t happen again.
Meidl questioned Burns’ concern, pointing to a union agreement that calls for internal investigations to be completed within six months.
“Timeliness to him, it’s subjective,” Meidl said.
He said the three aspects Burns is charged with reviewing in an investigation – timeliness, thoroughness and objectivity – are limited to an internal investigation, not the action taken because of the investigation.
“If he wants that authority, he’s going to have to get the ordinance changed,” Meidl said. “It’s the law, and we’re all expected to uphold the law, whether it’s labor law or criminal law.”
Burns’ authority to raise concerns is limited to how well the investigation is conducted, Meidl said.
Burns said the investigation was thorough. He just doesn’t understand why the officers were exonerated when witness statements said otherwise.
“The (panel) is entitled to their findings, but I think they need to do a comprehensive job of connecting all of the information,” Burns said. “I don’t think that report clearly reflected that.”
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