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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: Questions still remain about Spokane’s cop culture

The letter, sent in February to Spokane’s police chief, raised disturbing questions.

It alleges an unspecified pattern of discrimination against women and officers of color. It raised unspecified concerns about the accuracy and legitimacy of an SPD investigation, which it termed “reprehensible and unlawful.” And it was written by a Spokane cop.

Serious business, right? Absolutely. But not in the way you might think.

The letter writer was Sgt. Lydia Taylor. The investigation targeted her and her husband, former Detective Trammell “Mell” Taylor. The results of that investigation reflect poorly on the honesty and professionalism of both Taylors, and they raise, once again, the question: What would a cop have to do to be fired in this town? One hesitates to guess.

Taylor claims she is the victim of sexism and racism – her husband is African-American. The discrimination she claims to suffer is this: She was demoted after her fellow officers concluded she lied to them about not knowing of her husband’s illegal steroid use, a conclusion that is supported with evidence that emerged from her own mouth.

A panel of five fellow officers recommended she be fired. Instead, Chief Frank Straub bumped her down from sergeant to detective, calling it “significant.” Rather than saying thank you for the slap on the hand, Taylor fired off the letter, in which she refers to being a detective as a “purposely demeaning and patronizing role.”

Perhaps she’s just full of chutzpah. But maybe this is an example of what department critics call the culture problems in the SPD. Defensiveness and dismissiveness in the face of criticism. Self-righteousness where one might expect contrition. An utter failure to recognize when the double standard is working in your favor. A wall of oblivion standing between some officers and the public.

According to internal affairs records, Mell Taylor used illegal steroids for years, and knowingly wrote checks to a fake bank account set up to pay his dealer. His activities came to the attention of local police as part of a federal investigation. His punishment? Pensioned retirement.

Lydia Taylor, in a series of interviews about what she knew, waffled and “adjusted” her story. It is worth noting that the investigation was based in part on the Taylors’ connection to Marriya Wright, the former deputy prosecutor who pleaded guilty to charges that she helped a fugitive avoid arrest. They were fellow bodybuilders, and Lydia Taylor’s apparent suspicions that Wright had said something to investigators provoked an unusual visit on her part to Wright’s husband – also a law enforcement officer – which investigators saw as potential witness-tampering. Her internal affairs investigation concluded that two charges against her were founded: lying and interfering with a federal investigation.

It’s possible that there is sexism and racism in the department, of course, and it’s possible that the Taylors suffered from it. But the investigative reports make it hard to conclude that discrimination was the main reason they found themselves in hot water.

All sides of this case suggest that the beliefs, attitudes and practices – the culture – of the department might be usefully examined. The No. 1 recommendation of the Citizens Oversight Commission, which outlined a program of reforms for the department in 2013, was that the department should conduct a culture audit. Most of that panel’s recommendations have been adopted, and commission members have praised the efforts overall. And yet the culture question is different, having to do with long-standing beliefs and attitudes that may be impervious to any top-down reforms.

Straub has not moved forward with a full culture audit, though some surveys and other steps have been taken. There are questions about how it would work and whether it’s needed. Even the members of the commission have said that the overall reforms may have eliminated the need for a full culture audit.

Still, there is every reason to suppose that the original reasons for wanting such an audit have not simply evaporated. Those concerns grew, of course, from the Otto Zehm case. A frequent correspondent of mine, a retired member of law enforcement, often writes to point out that the federal investigation into that case did not identify a few bad apples, but an “extensive cover-up.”

My correspondent wonders how it can be that the investigation concluded without more responsibility assigned for this cover-up. I wonder how much of the viral contagion that led to the shoddy Zehm investigation, the effort to mislead the public, and the defiant support for convicted officer Karl Thompson still infects the department.

It may be a stretch to tie that to the Taylor case. But it may not: The refusal to accept seemingly mild discipline recurs again and again. Remember Brad Thoma? The cop who, incredibly, was popped for a DUI hit-and-run, and then sued the city because the department, which “punished” him with reassignment, wanted him to use a car-lock breathalyzer device?

These may simply be individual cases. There are almost 300 officers in the department – the barrel is much bigger than these apples. But it still seems that the moment for a deeper examination of culture might not have passed us by.

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

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