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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: ‘Wisdom’ on Straub very unwise

When “everybody knows” something, everybody is often wrong.

Jim McDevitt says that’s the case when it comes to the widespread assumption – which has had an airing in this column – that the fix was in on our new police chief, Frank Straub. The conventional wisdom held that Mayor David Condon handpicked Straub, ignored the advice of advisers, and that the process of gathering and evaluating input from lots of different people was a sham.

“I can tell you,” says McDevitt, the former U.S. attorney for Eastern Washington, “the conventional wisdom is wrong.”

Straub is our new chief, and questions over the selection process may seem like old news. But McDevitt makes a strong argument that the process has been widely misread. Which is one thing. He also makes a persuasive case that repairing the rift between the police department and the community is not only the police department’s job. We’re all a part of it.

“I mean the press, I mean the public, I mean the (Police) Guild,” he says. It chafes at him when he gets the sense that the new guy is being undercut before he even starts the job.

McDevitt serves on the mayor’s advisory committee on law enforcement. He served as the U.S. attorney for Eastern Washington from 2001 to 2010; it was on his watch that Karl Thompson was charged in the Otto Zehm case.

He says the process that was used to select Straub began back in January, as members of the panel developed criteria for selecting a new chief. He says that he would not have spent time and effort on the process – time and effort that continues now and into the future – if he felt it wasn’t legitimate.

Two major assumptions underlie the conventional wisdom that McDevitt says is wrong.

No. 1 - Condon handpicked Straub. In fact, McDevitt says, Condon recruited several different candidates. He asked Straub to apply, but he also asked others. These requests were examples not of cronyism, McDevitt says, but an effort to expand and strengthen the pool of candidates.

After the departure of Anne Kirkpatrick, the position was advertised; Condon and his law enforcement advisers were unhappy with the first round of applicants, and the mayor advertised the position a second time, McDevitt says. He asked other chiefs and top-ranking police officials to apply, and he took packets about the position to a national conference and “shopped them around” in an effort to find good candidates, McDevitt says.

McDevitt himself approached high-ranking police officials around the region, scouting for possible candidates. He says it was a hard sell, particularly within this region. Few top-ranking police leaders want to take on the challenges and demands awaiting them in Spokane.

No. 2 - Condon ignored an advisory panel that suggested none of the finalists for the position were qualified. Four committees evaluated the candidates; the panel made up of law enforcement representatives did recommend that the city seek new candidates rather than hire any of the finalists. McDevitt says three other advisory committees ranked Straub as the top candidate. Furthermore, he says that Straub eventually built broad support among people like him, who were not initially fans.

“Initially, Frank Straub was not at the top of my list,” McDevitt says. After he reviewed his qualifications, consulted with people in federal law enforcement whom he’d worked with over the years and met with Straub individually, “He became my No. 1 choice.”

One issue for the law enforcement panel appears to have been the fact that Straub has not worked as a city police officer.

Which is true. It is also, by itself, wildly insufficient to describe Straub’s fitness for office. Straub has: run a 3,500-person police and public safety agency in Indianapolis; led a 435-person police and public safety agency in White Plains, N.Y.; designed counterterrorism procedures for the New York City Police Department after 9/11; directed corruption investigations for the New York Office of the Inspector General; and worked as a special agent in different federal assignments for 15 years. He also has impressive academic credentials.

“The guy earned his spurs,” McDevitt says. “He’s for real. He hasn’t just sat at a desk or in an ivory tower all his career.”

This may be mostly beside the point, now. Straub’s the chief, and he’s got a very difficult, very important job. That doesn’t mean he gets a free pass on scrutiny and questions, but it does mean that the whole community is invested in his success.

As McDevitt says: “Let’s give the guy a chance.”

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@ Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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