To appreciate how far Spokane has come with police reforms, it helps to remember where we were.
In the summer of 2006, Police Department leaders were sticking with the pre-video-release claim that Otto Zehm had lunged at Officer Karl Thompson. That fall, the Citizens Review Commission would take up its first complaint against an officer in a decade, deciding in private there was nothing it could do. Afterward, one of the commissioners called the man who brought the complaint “an ass.”
That flap prompted then-police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick to say, “We need a system that allows me to open up our agency. I know that’s a priority for the community.”
From there it was the prosecution and conviction of Thompson, the officers in the courtroom who saluted him, the fits and starts of the ombudsman’s position, the lawsuit brought by the Zehm family and its mediated settlement, the dispatching of the aggressive assistant city attorney who buttressed the “us against them” culture, the hiring of a new police chief, the thoughtful work of the Use of Force Commission, the city’s request for the U.S. Justice Department to conduct a review of police practices and, most recently, the adoption of body cameras.
It’s been eight tumultuous years, but the city now has a chance to be on the leading edge of police practices and responsiveness to the community.
The news Friday was the recommendations from the U.S. Justice Department on how the Spokane Police Department can improve its use-of-force policies. But citizens should appreciate that the probe was voluntary and that the police chief, mayor and City Council president embraced the findings. There were no blockbuster revelations. In fact, the report said “police officers in the SPD do not routinely and deliberately engage in excessive use of force or deadly force, and (the Justice Department) did not find a pattern of biased application of use of force.”
Ron Davis, director of the U.S. Justice Department’s Community Oriented Policing Services, placed the review in the context of recent use-of-force controversies in New York and St. Louis County, and noted that the latter department also has invited an independent review. Before Spokane’s, the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department was the only one that had willingly undergone this type of examination.
Of course, the Police Department still needs to follow through on the 42 recommendations, but with the Use of Force Commission, ombudsman apparatus, a supportive City Hall leadership and an engaged community, that’s likely to occur.
At Friday’s news conference, police Chief Frank Straub said the department had a “moral and ethical obligation” to follow through. But he also made a fair point about the need for the community’s fiercest critics to acknowledge reforms. The perception that the department is rife with rogue cops was not borne out in the review, so the incendiary rhetoric belongs in the past.
The department is changing its policies, practices and culture. Give it credit, but keep watching.
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