Citing improvements in police transparency and accountability, Spokane’s Use of Force Commission said it would defer to police Chief Frank Straub’s decision about whether to conduct a formal culture audit of the department.
But an Eastern Washington University study released last week showing police disproportionately stop black and Native American residents has renewed calls from some community leaders for an audit to look at, among other things, how officers view race and whether that impacts their actions on the street.
A culture audit was among 26 recommendations made by the commission in late 2012. In a letter sent to the mayor last week, commissioners praised police progress on transparency and said the department had followed the vast majority of recommendations “to the letter of the law, and in all other instances the spirit of our recommendations has been embraced to drive improvement.”
In an interview, commission chairman Earl Martin specifically praised Straub’s interest in improving the department, saying the chief seeks out recommendations for improvements.
“When he gets one that he thinks is valid, he runs with it,” Martin said.
Straub is seeking input from a community working group on the EWU study about race and police contacts, which was done by professor Edward Byrnes and police Capt. Brad Arleth. Based on a five-month analysis of 7,021 police contacts in 2014, the study found black and Native American residents are more likely to be stopped by police, though they are not significantly more likely to be searched or arrested once stopped.
The report found no indication of police racial bias playing a role in arrests or searches, a fact Straub emphasized during a news conference Monday. Three examinations of Spokane’s police – the Byrnes study, the Use of Force Commission’s review and a review by the U.S. Department of Justice – have found “nothing that suggests that there’s a race issue with our police department,” Straub said.
Disparities in police contacts are driven by other social factors that need to be looked at, including education levels and poverty rates, he said. Other parts of the criminal justice system also influence policing, such as when someone has a warrant issued for their arrest because they’ve fallen behind on court payments.
“This is not a police-only issue. What we’re trying to figure out is what brings those people to the police and what brings the police to those people,” Straub said.
But the EWU study did not conclude whether bias by police played a role in the initial stops that drive later searches and arrests.
Byrnes said he commends the department for being transparent and seeking to examine the relationship between race and policing, but it was too early for the data to say why some racial minority groups are disproportionately contacted by police.
“It would be premature, especially in the absence of some discussion with community members and police together … to say that there’s no bias in contacts,” he said.
The eight-member working group, made up of members of the Mayor’s Advisory Council for Multicultural Affairs, will work with the department to make recommendations based on the study results.
Sandra Williams, the director of EWU’s Pride Center and a working group member, said she sees the group as an opportunity to have a difficult community conversation about race and address the perception that police and black community members have an adversarial relationship.
“This is one of the few times when I’m seeing leadership take a step forward” to address issues proactively, she said.
The disparity in police contacts across racial groups also has been the focus of community groups who believe the department still needs a culture audit.
Rachel Dolezal, chairwoman of the police ombudsman commission, said she commends the department for its efforts toward greater transparency but said an independent look at department culture remains warranted, especially in light of the study.
“Those efforts do not qualify as a substitute for the type of culture audit the Use of Force Commission originally recommended, and I still support the full-scale culture audit process,” she wrote.
Center for Justice Executive Director Rick Eichstaedt agreed a culture audit could shed light on questions about how the department interacts with community members.
“How does the SPD view itself, the community it serves, and the reaction of the community to its actions? What are internal expectations as to interactions with the public and with people of color? How does that contribute to the actions on the streets? … A culture audit can look at these issues,” he wrote in an email.
Some form of culture audit may still be in the works as the police department continues to implement federal recommendations made in December.
Among its 42 recommendations, the Justice Department review team told Spokane police to clarify the Use of Force Commission’s request for an audit to determine whether one was still needed. With that clarification now in hand, police leaders will continue to discuss how to proceed.
“It hasn’t been set in stone what this cultural audit would look like,” police spokeswoman Monique Cotton said. “We’re still pretty early in this process.”
Mayor David Condon said he’s been in contact with staff from the Justice Department’s Community Oriented Policing Services office, which reviewed Spokane’s police. One challenge is that there’s no existing tool or blueprint for doing a culture audit of a police department, though the Justice Department is in the process of developing one.
“We are pushing the envelope on every one of these issues,” he said, referring to efforts to reform policing. He added that it “wouldn’t surprise” him if Spokane becomes the pilot city for a Justice Department evaluation tool once it’s developed.
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