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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Justice Department recommends police reforms; chief embraces report

With the family of Otto Zehm looking on, Spokane police Chief Frank Straub said his department has an obligation to enact large-scale reforms announced by the Department of Justice on Friday.

The review, which spans five years of data on use of force and surveyed dozens of officers about their attitudes and approaches to law enforcement, had long been demanded by citizens and activists in the wake of the janitor’s death in March 2006. The department will have 18 months to comply fully with the recommendations, or potentially face a more comprehensive and mandatory review by federal officials.

Straub, joined by Spokane Mayor David Condon, U.S. Attorney Mike Ormsby and others, said the department is united in its efforts for reform. He asked the community to give police time to implement the recommendations stemming from a two-year review of the department led by Ronald Davis, director of the Justice Department’s Community Oriented Policing Services. Straub said the distrust of the police department was real and justified, but the time had come to move on.

“We are opening our hearts and our arms to listen, but I have to ask the community to do the same thing,” he said.

While many lauded the recommendations and the resolve displayed by Straub and others to comply with them, many police reform advocates expressed concern about the report’s findings on issues of race and questioned whether the Spokane Police Guild, which has resisted reforms in the past, will sign off on all of the recommendations.

For the Zehm family, the announcement served as justification that his death had meaning in the community.

“He did not die in vain,” said Sandy Zehm, a member of Otto Zehm’s family who spoke Friday. “It was a tragic situation, and it always will be.”

Recommendations on force, training, organization

The report’s authors examined data provided by Spokane police, interviewed and surveyed about a fifth of the department’s workforce, and observed recent training.

The 118-page report offers 42 recommendations, including slight alterations of training policy, suggestions for new hires and a potential departmentwide cultural audit.

Authors singled out for enhanced scrutiny the department’s use of the lateral vascular neck restraint and rifles. A review of 243 uses of force by Spokane police officers dating to 2009 showed law enforcement relied heavily on the neck restraint, which restricts the flow of blood to the brain to render the person unconscious.

Spokane police use the hold, commonly known as a “sleeper hold,” more often than a Taser, baton or pepper spray, according to the results of the audit. The maneuver has prompted lawsuits nationwide and received increased scrutiny after a New York police officer was videotaped fatally choking Eric Garner, an unarmed black man.

The report calls for supervisors to review any officer’s use of the technique with the same scrutiny as a fatal encounter. The officer should have to explain why the hold was used in a particular situation in accordance with the department’s policy, which requires the person to be “violent or resisting” or posing a threat.

Five of the nine deadly incidents the authors reviewed involved a Spokane police officer firing his service rifle. The report calls for officers to communicate more clearly about how many rifles are present at a particular crime scene.

Chief Straub received a mixed review from patrol officers in anonymous surveys. Responders said internal communication following a use of deadly force has improved since Straub arrived in August 2012. But they also said job shuffling had occurred without full explanation.

“Our interviews revealed that some officers feel that these changes have affected department morale because officers are unsure how long they will be in their current positions,” the report says.

A review of the department’s structure, and how it evaluates officers with a history of repeated uses of force, also turned up some deficiencies. The authors praised the department’s new early intervention system, designed to flag employees who use force with higher frequency than their peers. However, they suggested lowering the threshold for review from six documented uses of force per year to four.

One department, one direction?

A potential roadblock for enacting the recommendations is the Police Guild, which has stymied efforts at reform before, most recently during negotiations to strengthen independent oversight of the police department.

A year and a half after Las Vegas received a similar review of its police force, about 95 percent of the recommendations have been enacted. The remainder are tied up because of union contracts, said Davis, who led Spokane’s review and was recently named by President Barack Obama to lead a task force on 21st century policing.

At the federal courthouse, Straub repeatedly said the Police Guild was “on board” and “a partner” in reforms to the department.

“The days of, ‘It’s the guild versus the chief’ are over. They’re gone,” Straub said. “We have one department moving in one direction, and that’s to get better.”

Straub said he was “cognizant” that contracts and budgets may constrain efforts at implementing some of the recommendations, but refused to acknowledge any difficulties that may spring from union resistance.

Not everyone agreed.

Breean Beggs, who represented Zehm’s family in its legal action against the city, said the guild could, and has the right to, challenge some of the recommended reforms.

“I think the guild would say, and fairly, ‘Well, some of these recommendations affect our daily working conditions. We’d like to be involved in the process,’ ” Beggs said. “That’s not inappropriate. But what’s happened in the past in Spokane has been the guild has objected and then we’ve heard from city government: ‘There’s nothing we can do.’ ”

Councilman Jon Snyder, who chairs the city’s Public Safety Committee, said he believes most police officers want to enact reforms, and he hopes the Justice Department’s recommendations will bridge “the gulf between the public and the police about their role.”

“At the most basic level, the average rank-and-file police officer wants to be as effective as possible and wants to be part of the best police department possible,” he said. “I’m not going to assume right off the bat that there’s going to be a problem with the guild. … Before we get down to contract language, we have to assume that they will look upon this opportunity for improvement in a positive way.”

Sgt. John Gately, president of the guild, said he had seen nothing in the report that made him think the guild would challenge its recommendations. Still, he said, he hadn’t read the whole report.

“There are obviously areas where we have a conversation about the best way to approach, and we’re encouraged that there are open lines of communication,” Gately said, pointing to the discussion over body cameras as an example of the guild working with the administration. “The chief asks us for our input.”

Gately said the report would help “the citizens to see what the police department is.”

“The police department does not use excessive force or show bias,” he said. “The police department is doing a good job and works for them.”

Concerns about racial bias in report

The report comes at a time when tensions between police and communities of color have been especially visible on the national stage after weeks of protests across the country following several high-profile police killings of unarmed black men.

“The trust in many of our communities, especially communities of color, does not exist, or it is very strained and very damaged and may require a process that’s facilitated by independent objective parties,” Davis said.

But Davis said the report only addressed uses of force. It did not examine potential bias in stops, searches and other police actions.

“We did not do a top-to-bottom” review, he said.

Though the Justice Department said use of force by Spokane police is not racially biased, several community groups questioned that finding based on statistics in the report.

Of the 243 use-of-force incidents reviewed, 10 percent involved black subjects and 7 percent involved American Indians, while Spokane’s population is only 2.3 percent black and about 2 percent American Indian. About three-quarters of the cases involved white suspects, though white people make up about 87 percent of Spokane residents.

“It’s very questionable, and I don’t know why it isn’t a disparity on its face,” said Liz Moore, executive director of the Peace and Justice Action League of Spokane.

Rachel Dolezal, the newly elected chair of the police ombudsman commission, called the data on race concerning and said the finding should not be the end of a conversation about race and use of force.

“It kind of depends on how you’re looking at the data whether it’s a problem or not,” said Dolezal, the president-elect of the Spokane branch of the NAACP. “I hope we don’t get too comfortable.”

Public ignorance of ombudsman remains

Despite public outreach efforts, many community members remain unaware of the police ombudsman’s responsibilities and independent investigative powers, the report found.

Four recommendations were made to improve the ombudsman’s oversight role. Those included more involvement in police department use-of-force review, including the use-of-force review board, which handles nondeadly use-of-force review. The ombudsman also needs clearer bylaws and policies to define the role of the office and the five-member citizen commission tasked with overseeing it, the report says.

Some community members felt the ombudsman’s office was not independent, which deterred them from making complaints, the report said.

Under a contract approved by the Spokane Police Guild in February 2014, the ombudsman has authority to conduct an independent investigation if the police department chooses to not investigate a complaint. The ombudsman commission also can contract with a third-party investigator for incidents it believes were not investigated thoroughly.

To improve understanding, the report recommends the ombudsman collaborate with the police department to take advantage of existing community outreach programs, and also working to increase awareness of its monthly and annual reports.

Those reports, posted on the ombudsman’s website, summarize complaints received by the office and results of the ombudsman’s review of police investigations.

Ombudsman Tim Burns said the issues identified in the report were known areas of concern.

“We’d be foolish not to implement all of them,” he said.

More broadly, Burns said he was pleased with the report, which he said could set the stage for making Spokane a national model of progressive policing.

Dolezal said it will require hard work from the commission and the ombudsman to ensure all of the recommendations are implemented.

“There’s a lot of heavy lifting to do,” she said.

Does the report have teeth?

As a voluntary review, the report has no ability to compel the police department to enact its recommendations.

Still, the mayor, police chief and other officials said there were other pressures at play to make the reforms a reality.

“These recommendations are not optional,” Condon said. “It is not up for debate. It is not up for discussion.”

Davis was more specific, saying the Justice Department will issue “progress reports” over the next year and a half to ensure progress. Those reports will reveal whether recommendations are not being followed, he said.

The Justice Department retains the ability to conduct a full patterns-and-practices review, which would audit all department policies and procedures and legally compel changes if civil rights violations are found.

More bluntly, Davis said the city could face far worse, if unintended, consequences if action is avoided.

“Some of these things, if not addressed, could lead to excessive force,” he said.

Finally, he shifted responsibility away from the federal government to local leaders and the community for ensuring the recommendations are enacted.

“These are not enforced in a court of law,” he said, “but rather, in the court of public opinion.”

Snyder said that was appropriate.

“The burden is on us,” he said. “All of us bear responsibility. We have an election next year, so that will be one way for the public to express their frustrations.”

Straub said he was optimistic his department would make progress on reforms during what he called a unique time for law enforcement in America.

“We have a moral and ethical obligation to implement all 42 recommendations,” Straub said. “We are now on the national stage. Now is our time.”