The Spokane Police Department has decided it’s ready for its close-up. Roll the cameras.
The department last week released video of the Oct. 12 police-involved shooting of Jason M. Smith. In about 22 seconds, three officers – Chris McMurtrey, Stanley Stadelman and Joseph Matt – fired 19 shots at Smith, hitting him three times. He survived.
Smith had ignored a warning to return to the house, instead ramming McMurtrey’s squad car. That set off the fusillade, which ended when the wounded Smith got out of the truck and staggered to the ground.
At that point the officers became medics, tending to Smith’s wounds until an ambulance arrived. Others made sure people in the surrounding homes were safe.
Investigators recommended assault charges be filed against Smith: none against the officers.
It was the transfer of the recommendations to Spokane County Prosecutor Larry Haskell at the conclusion of the investigation that triggered release of the video and documents to the public. The timing is unprecedented.
In the past, the department would not begin its internal investigation before the prosecutor had made a charging decision. That might be months or, in the 2006 case of Otto Zehm, never.
Had it not been for video taken from a convenience store camera, Officer Karl Thompson might never have been charged by the U.S. Attorney and convicted of federal crimes stemming from Zehm’s death at the hands of Spokane police officers.
Thompson and his fellow officers/enablers had tried to peddle a story about Zehm assaulting Thompson. Public confidence in the department hit an all-time low when they were caught in their lie.
Now, the department will release the results of investigations into officer-involved shootings as soon as those materials are handed to the prosecutor, at which time it will launch its internal investigation.
Camera footage will be a central element of those findings. Camera introduction is changing policing, even in the most recalcitrant departments, as illustrated last week with the filing of first-degree murder charges against a Chicago police officer.
Reviews of the Spokane Police Department have led to major reforms since Zehm, including the introduction of body cameras, which all patrol officers are expected to have by the end of the year.
Release of the Smith shooting footage signals a new, welcome dedication to transparency. And response to adoption of body cameras by the department has been positive among officers and the public, according to an ongoing study that confirms the experience in other communities.
Sadly, alleged misconduct by former Chief Frank Straub and some officers has again damaged the public’s regard for a force that continues to improve, meeting more of the benchmarks established by the U.S. Department of Justice.
If the police department remains dedicated to transparency, the public will see that improvement for itself.
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