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Monday, October 26, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Use of force panel offers 26 recommendations to improve police department

Members of the Use of Force Commission, including from left, William Hyslop, Earl Martin, commission chair, and Susan Hammond present 26 recommendations to improve the police department. (Dan Pelle)
Members of the Use of Force Commission, including from left, William Hyslop, Earl Martin, commission chair, and Susan Hammond present 26 recommendations to improve the police department. (Dan Pelle)

A yearlong review of the Spokane Police Department found a professional organization committed to public service but lacking in identity and needing improvements in how it investigates its own officers.

The draft report by the independent city Use of Force Commission was released Thursday with 26 recommendations for how the department needs to improve, with the ultimate goal of restoring public trust following the scandal surrounding its handling of the Otto Zehm investigation.

Commission chairman Earl “Marty” Martin lauded the skill and courage that officers bring to work every day but suggested the department could improve everything from rewriting its mission statement to focusing training on defusing dangerous situations before deadly force is needed.

“Any great organization must be clear about what it stands for,” Martin said. “This department needs to be clear about its values in all that it does.”

The commission was formed in January to bring Mayor David Condon ideas about how to address the controversy laid bare by the federal investigation that resulted in the conviction of former Officer Karl F. Thompson Jr. for the beating of Zehm, a mentally disabled janitor erroneously implicated in a possible theft who was beaten, shocked with a Taser and later died following his arrest in 2006.

While the scope of the review did not focus solely on the Zehm investigation, Martin said the commission’s review would not have occurred without “that tragedy.”

“The core purpose of our work is to avoid similar incidents in the future,” he said.

Condon, who did not receive the draft report until minutes before it was presented by Martin, said he’s fully committed to implementing as many commission recommendations as possible.

“We cannot let another tragedy like Otto Zehm happen again,” Condon said. “This has been and will be my No. 1 priority. Many of these recommendations would lead to that.”

Condon also announced that he will be going to voters in August seeking a tax increase to pay for changes suggested by the commission, enhanced service from the Spokane Fire Department and other changes to the criminal justice system.

“We as a community have to decide what we can afford,” he said. The commission’s job was to “come up with the ideas. It’s the administration’s job to come up with the financial plan to pay for it.”

Martin said the commission will hold two public comment hearings, scheduled for Jan. 16 and Jan. 30, before delivering the final report to Condon sometime in February.

Martin said the recommendations were listed in order of how they were reviewed but don’t necessarily reflect their importance. The recommendations include the following:

• Conduct a culture audit of the SPD.

• Bring greater transparency to the city’s negotiations with the Spokane Police Guild and other department unions.

• Rewrite the SPD mission statement.

• Chief Frank Straub and other command staff should maintain an open dialogue with the community.

• Affirm the de-escalation of potentially violent encounters as a primary goal of the department.

• Improve the use-of-force reporting system.

• Improve the investigation practices in use-of-force incidents.

• Equip officers with body cameras.

• Create a Citizen Advisory Board for the Office of the Police Ombudsman.

• Give the police ombudsman the authority to open and conduct independent investigations into operations, actions or omissions by the SPD.

Three recommendations call for changing the role of the City Attorney’s Office in its defending, advising and providing legal assistance in reviewing department policies and procedures.

Straub said he welcomes the recommendations and is expected today to release his strategic plan, which is a five-year planning tool for the department.

“You will see a lot of duplication, which is a good thing,” Straub said.

The chief, who also had just minutes to review the 26 changes, said he didn’t have any immediate objections to any of them.

“I would agree with many of the statements that have been made,” Straub said.

He noted that the strategic plan is a fluid document that can change as needed to accommodate recommendations from the commission.

The timing of the two reports was not related, he said.

“I wanted (the strategic plan) out before the holidays so the department and community know come January this is the plan and we will hit the ground running,” he said.

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