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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Kirkpatrick looks back at five years as police chief

Spokane police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick talks in January 2011 about her department’s response to the backpack bomb found on the Martin Luther King Jr. Day Unity March route in downtown Spokane. (File)

Anne Kirkpatrick’s last official day as chief of the Spokane Police Department is today, but she’d already left the city by the end of last week.

She was sworn in Sept. 11, 2006, and said in an interview with the City Council that she planned to stay about five years. She had planned to stay into early this year as the city searched for a new police chief, but she changed her departure date to early January after David Condon beat Mary Verner in the mayoral election after running on a platform that included reforming the Police Department.

Kirkpatrick pledged to hold her officers to high standards and make tough personnel decisions. Some of those decisions have led to controversy, and lawsuits. A Spokane County jury in October awarded Spokane police Detective Jay Mehring more than $700,000 for a wrongful termination and defamation lawsuit he brought against Kirkpatrick and the city of Spokane. The city has appealed the verdict.

Kirkpatrick has moved back to the Seattle area but says she loves Spokane and looks forward to visiting. She calls her departure a retirement but says she’s willing to move anywhere in the country for other options.

Kirkpatrick sat down with The Spokesman-Review to discuss her five years as chief.

Q.What are your biggest accomplishments?

A.“Putting an emphasis on who we are as Spokane police, and putting together a leadership team that will have a big impact on the future. Just kind of setting the stage for, as I said, who we are, who do we want to be? What does it mean to be a Spokane police officer and wear that patch on the side of your arm on your uniform? What does it stand for? It’s a good department, but I want everybody to say, ‘This is who we are, this is what we stand for, these are our values, and they really are reflective of the community values. And we’re committed to that.’ 

“I had been asked when I came to Spokane to turn the battleship, if you will, and I think the battleship did turn; the battleship, although in stormy waters, did turn.”

Q.Do you think that’s reflected in personnel decisions you’ve made?

A.“Tough personnel decisions are not only with respect to discipline but with respect to who are you promoting, who are you putting into leadership? Who are you giving authority to? Those decisions are difficult, because how do you pick one racehorse over another racehorse? But everything and every decision I tried to make had to do with creating the team that would be the best team anywhere. And I hit a perfect storm that required more challenges than what was expected, but we have sailed through those storms.”

Q.What are those storms?

A.“I walked in knowing I was inheriting some rough waters” including the Otto Zehm-Karl Thompson case and the end of the “firehouse sex scandal,” in which police instructed a firefighter to delete sexually explicit photos he took of a 16-year-old girl. “But from that time on they kept coming in. We had arrests, and we had the shooting of Shonto Pete (by a now former off-duty police officer, Jay Olsen). We had a threat of domestic violence … against a spouse. It just went on and on and on. Although I knew I was inheriting a storm, I didn’t know it would continue to blow for five years.”

Q.Why was Karl Thompson allowed to work in an administrative capacity after being charged with federal felonies when you’ve fired other officers for felony charges?

A.“Some of these decisions are not Anne Kirkpatrick’s decisions alone. Our policies and procedures require us to have a committee” review the offense, which wasn’t done with Detective Jay Mehring. “We paid for skipping that step, right? … . At the time, I was getting counseled by City Hall. City Hall didn’t know that we were supposed to be having a committee. I didn’t know we were supposed to be having a committee.” (Jay Olsen was suspended without pay after he was charged with a felony, but the city had to give him back pay after a jury acquitted him. Kirkpatrick said she didn’t want to make the same mistake with Thompson.) “The public on one hand will be very upset if you put a person in layoff status but then you’ve got to reinstate them and reimburse them. But then they’re upset if you don’t put them into the layoff status. It’s very hard to tell with the public which way does the wind blow.”

Q.What’s your opinion about the Otto Zehm-Karl Thompson case?

A.“I won’t share it at this time, but I definitely have an opinion. It’s not time. The Zehm matter is not over. Until it’s over, my opinion can have consequences.

Q.When is it over?

A.“When the U.S. attorney tells me it’s over, but I’m not going to be here at that stage, so it won’t be mine to close out.”

Q.What are your biggest regrets?

A.“One is that I was not able, in my tenure, to see complete closure and healing regarding Otto Zehm. I would have very much liked to have extended my hand to Mrs. Zehm (Otto’s mother, Ann) herself. I just, I’m sorry that the wound is not completely closed for everyone, and that includes the department and the community and Mrs. Zehm. I have a regret knowing that I am leaving and there are still wounds.”

Another regret is how Assistant Chief Jim Nicks was treated after he changed his official account of the Zehm case. “He was the one who had the integrity and character to change his position once he got new information and he stuck with it. Even through the hostility that compromised his health, no one gave him the credit for the character or the integrity it took to take a stand and change his view. … He’s a good man of good honor and character. He spoke what he had been told, but he did change that, and he was never given credit, and that is a regret that I have for him.”

Q.How’s the mood in the department?

A.“I think they have very low morale. I think they’ve had low morale for a while. Until Zehm is totally closed with respect to the criminal matter you will not have people really able to begin healing and moving on. Everybody’s anxious over (Mayor David) Condon’s decision: Who is he going to name as an interim and what is his plan? They’re very anxious about that. Because until you have it known who the next chief is, even an interim leaves things in limbo. So things are open-ended for people. You’ve got to have closure. I think until that occurs morale will always continue to be subject to not being good.”

Q.What advice would you give to your successor?

A.“The community’s been great, so I would encourage the next person to really get out there and get to know people. When people invite you to go to Rotary, go to Rotary. Plug in that way. Get to know your community because the community’s great and they want to be good to you. I would encourage them to continue with an open style with media. I really tried to make myself as accessible as possible. I think I’ve been very true to that. It’s real easy to say you believe in transparency, but let’s see you really do it. I think I’ve been really very true to my word. I’ve walked my talk.”

Q.Like in regard to personnel issues?

A.“I will be an officer’s greatest cheerleader because I believe in what we do. But I also will never look the other way. I guess I would call that trying to be a good parent. Kind of role modeling that same type of leadership where you are the parent who is there on the sidelines cheerleading your team, coaching, counseling and encouraging – but will not turn a blind eye to misconduct.”

Q.What was your reaction to the jury siding with Jay Mehring in his wrongful termination lawsuit?

A.“Is it disappointing? Yes. But it’s not disappointing in that I will never turn the other way. I will do my part; whatever happens, happens. But again, I don’t understand the fickleness of it. When somebody’s arrested, you hear, ‘Go get him, go get him, go get him.’ I take care of the problem, but then we have civilians who turn around and put him right back in the department. I don’t get it. That can be very frustrating. I’ve been disappointed trying to figure out the community. It’s like I’ve done my part; I didn’t turn my blind eye. If a case looked criminal I gave it out of house; if officers were arrested or tried they were disciplined. I did my part. And the outcomes I cannot control and nor do I desire to control.”

Q.Do you think the elimination of the property crimes unit and the public outcry will be part of your legacy?

A.“This is the pushback I have: it’s all emotional. The very decision about how we were going to have to deal with the property crime unit was part of the budget presentation before the City Council almost a year ago. We said, ‘If you cut us again this deep we have nowhere else to cut, so, City Council, this is how we’re going to handle the property crime unit if you cut us this deep. And you’ve got the City Council going, ‘Yep, yep, yeah.’ They make that decision, and (police leaders are) saying, ‘You wait to July when it’s actually implemented and they’ll push it back on us.’ … Here it comes to fruition, their constituents start to call, they get the heat from the public, and who do they blame? And so that’s what I’m talking about: the fickleness. They were all on board. Now they don’t like it and who do they blame? The police. That’s why I say the public doesn’t think it through. They mean well, but that’s the emotional reaction. Your bloggers and commentators, they’re just emoting. They’re not thinking.”

Q.What do you think about the Spokane Police Guild?

A.“I don’t understand this particular guild’s leadership, and I think a lot of people don’t understand it. But if you want to really look at culture change, you’ve got to look at who is being elected, because who is being elected – who the person is – is representing certain values. You look at (Spokane police Lt.) Joe Walker and the people who are in these other unions, these people are living, breathing and practicing values that are consistent with our community and so forth. They may be silent, but the majority of this department by far supports and has aligned with the values of this community. They have aligned. They are not in opposition with the values of this community, or who we are as police officers. I would like to see that silent majority express their voice more. That was where some of my conflict with the guild leadership was. Pick and choose your battles. There’s an axiom out there: You can win every battle but still lose the war. You’ve got to choose your battles,” such as the guild’s opposition to the expanded powers of the ombudsman. “I understand the need to bargain. But don’t fight. What is there to hide? I have never understood that mindset, why do we hide? That’s why I’ve been so open with everybody. Why? If you’re not doing anything, why? And if you did do something wrong, don’t hide it, acknowledge it, own it and move on. … You can be a good team but you can never be a great team unless you have only the best players on the bench. So you’ve got to be willing to cut the bench, but if leadership on the other side wants to protect everybody … you’re going to be limited. Pick and choose your battles. Use some discretion.”

Q.What advice would you give your successor on dealing with the City Council?

A.“I think well of the council. I’ve thought, for the most part, well of the old council. It’s not that anybody means harm. They forget. We don’t think in terms of logic. They earnestly try to educate themselves. They earnestly try to make the right decision at the moment, but they just tend to forget their decision. I would say to the next person, constantly educate, constantly re-educate, constantly remind. And document yourself, so you can go back and say, ‘Council members, you asked me for this, you’re claiming that I didn’t give it to you. Hmmmm, here’s the email.’ Be sure that you cover your trail. Be sure you have a record. And also I would recommend that the new council and the new chief surround themselves with good legal counsel. Have him or her surround themselves with men and women who reflect their values. And I’m sure that the community will choose a chief that reflects their values.

“I can tell you without a doubt that I reflected the values of this community and never, ever veered from them. All I did when I came in was say, ‘I want to run the household with these household rules: No bullying. No abuse of authority. No insubordination. No lying. No conduct unbecoming that would cause anyone to have a lack of trust in this department.’ All I did was come in and say, ‘These are the household rules.’ I think those reflect the community, and every action I have taken has aligned with that. So I would hope they would select a chief who is committed to those, even if there’s personal pain associated with being true to them. I stayed true. I think that’s an accomplishment in a sea of compromise.”

Q.What are your plans for the future?

A.“I’ve got irons in the fire. I’m prepared to move and live anywhere in the nation that I need to go. I’m excited about it. I’m grateful to Spokane. I really am. Spokane has been good to me. I want to thank the community. I want to thank the staff. It’s been a great department to me. I want to assure the community they’ve got a good police department. I look forward to coming back. My goal and a plan is to come back on a regular basis. I very much look forward to developing friendships. When you’re chief of police you have to be such a good steward of your role and position, both in the community and in house. There are so many people in the department I would like to just be friends with, and so many in the community I would really like to develop my friendships with. And now that that title will be in the past, I look forward to returning to Spokane on a frequent basis. I love this city. I love the community.”