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Shawn Vestal: Spokane statistics on crime, use of force are heartening

Spokane police Chief Frank Straub speaks during a news conference at the Public Safety Building in Spokane in 2013. (File)

When police Chief Frank Straub steps before the Spokane Use of Force Commission for the final time today, he will have a lot to report.

But if he had to boil it down, he might just say: Crime is down, and so is the use of force by officers.

That, Straub says, is evidence that the “sea change” in the Spokane Police Department is more than just talk, and that the city’s push for reform following the disgrace of the Otto Zehm case has begun seeping into the department’s DNA.

“When you see crime going down as significantly as it did at the same time that use of force is going down, that’s a testament” to the effectiveness of the changes, Straub said this week in an interview. “The community really needs to be proud of its police department.”

The head of the commission, Earl Martin, also said that he has seen tremendous progress in the department over the past three years.

“I think the Spokane Police Department is in a much, much better place than it was three years ago,” said Martin, an administrator at Gonzaga who is leaving to become the president of Drake University.

In 2014, overall crime in Spokane dropped 8.4 percent, according to department statistics. Violent crime dropped 19.7 percent. Separately, the proportion of use-of-force incidents went down by about a fifth over the previous year; of all interactions with the public, officers used force in 0.09 percent of incidents. The national average, according to the Department of Justice, is between 1.4 percent and 1.7 percent.

Straub credits a variety of factors for this dynamic: Extensive training in crisis intervention, reorganization of the department into a precinct-based model, a “healthy tension” produced by the organizations and the public examining the department, and a wide variety of community outreach efforts. The department has also begun hiring more officers, with more to come, and tracking and releasing crime statistics much more closely with its CompStat system.

Those final two factors – more cops, more stats – are crucial. A study released this week by the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University Law School cited CompStat and increased police staffing as being effective in reducing crime in American cities, while increased incarceration has not.

Few pieces of the Spokane reform machinery have been as important as the Use of Force Commission and its 26 recommendations. They ranged from rewriting the department’s mission statement to conducting an audit of the department’s culture, from enhancing the department’s training and record-keeping to equipping officers with body cameras.

Martin and four other board members will hear Straub’s presentation today. They will then prepare a response to the mayor’s office, just as they did at intervals of six months and one year following their initial recommendations. When they do so, it will mark the close of a remarkable chapter in city history.

‘Leap of faith’

The 2006 death of Otto Zehm, and the subsequent handling of the case by the city – from the executive offices of the police department to City Hall – has been well-documented. Part of Mayor David Condon’s election in 2011 was built on his promise to pursue reforms. It was also perfect timing – Karl Thompson’s conviction in Zehm’s beating came the same month as Condon’s election, and it cleared a pathway for aggressive action.

Martin already had been asked to lead a panel to examine the department by Condon’s predecessor, Mary Verner. Condon backed Martin to head up a citizens’ commission that would produce a public report evaluating the department and suggesting changes. Martin said that from the start, the commission and its goals represented a “giant leap of faith” on Condon’s part.

“He said, ‘You go find the remainder of the commissioners,’ ” Martin said, “‘I’m not going to tell you who they’re going to be.’”

Condon and Straub would later pledge to meet all of the commission’s recommendations. It was unprecedented in city history – and in most cities’ histories. Martin said that when he spoke to DOJ officials about the process, “they saw it as a very unique thing.”

It was also necessary, he said.

“We had been through something that demanded that kind of response,” Martin said. “The Otto Zehm tragedy was just that – a great tragedy. … It demanded something out of the box, extraordinary.”

Martin chose retired state Supreme Court Justice Gerry Alexander; William Hyslop of the law firm Lukins & Annis; longtime activist and school district equal opportunity officer Ivan Bush; and Susan Hammond, a nurse with experience in mental health services. The commission was formalized in January 2012. Following a series of community meetings, it issued its final report in February 2013.

Some of the recommendations were more difficult to achieve than others. The No. 1 recommendation called for a “culture audit” of the department. There has been disagreement whether Straub was fully meeting this recommendation, and what exactly the commission was calling for.

Straub said the separate review recently conducted by the Department of Justice included surveys of department members, and will include additional surveys when DOJ staffers revisit Spokane to check the progress on its own – separate – recommendations. He said he feels this, in the context of other efforts, satisfies that recommendation.

The DOJ concluded, however, that its survey of 20 members of the department “is not comprehensive and should not be considered a cultural audit. In addition to officer interviews, a comprehensive cultural audit should include extensive observations of police practices and police community interactions, focus groups with both officers and community members and a number of other activities.”

Martin said he’s waiting to hear the chief’s case before making up his mind on this point. He said that the goals of the recommendation may be satisfied by the DOJ report in conjunction with many other changes Straub has implemented.

It may be, he said, that “what we recommended is no longer necessary.”

‘Cutting-edge stuff’

That question aside, the commission’s report has provided the bones and muscle for major improvement in the department.

In today’s hearing, Straub will discuss the way the department has responded, including the following points:

• The commission recommended crisis-intervention training for officers to learn how to better deal with the mentally ill and addicted. Nearly all of the 299 members of the force have now undergone CIT training; starting this year, a group of 20 or so officers will go through an enhanced CIT program, expanding and deepening the training in conjunction with Washington State University researchers. The goal is to always have an enhanced CIT officer on the clock, Straub said.

• Officers are also undergoing training in “verbal de-escalation,” among other programs. The department has hired a full-time staffer to oversee training needs that emerged from the DOJ report.

• Arizona State University will study the use of body cameras in Spokane and Tempe in the coming year. Researchers will compare a group of officers wearing the cameras against a group that is not wearing them, and try to track the cameras’ influence.

• Among several outreach efforts is the department’s Youth and Police Initiative, which fosters relationships between teens and officers. Straub said the department is working with Spokane Public Schools to implement the program as an alternative for out-of-school suspensions.

Straub argues that, taken together, what is happening here is unique in law enforcement.

“We really are doing some cutting edge stuff here that is informing the state discussion and the national discussion,” he said.

The work is not done, of course. It probably never is. Department critics will continue to raise valid concerns. Many have noted that, while the DOJ report concluded there was no pattern of biased policing, it also showed statistics that black and Native American residents were disproportionately involved in the use-of-force incidents. Others are skeptical of the fact that when officers do use force, it is always deemed justified – journalist Tim Connor has emphasized the fact that there has not been a single finding that an officer used excessive force since 2007. Some of us will always struggle with the knowledge that a significant number of officers who saluted Karl Thompson in court, in front of his victim’s family, still patrol the streets.

Still, it’s remarkable to consider what has happened. Today’s Use of Force Commission hearing will be a chance to take stock of that – though Straub said he’s not crossing a finish line. After all, the DOJ has outlined its own blueprint for further action, and will be checking progress in the next 18 months.

“Now we have 43 more recommendations,” Straub said.

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

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