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Friday, February 28, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Re-elected Spokane Mayor Condon must refocus on police accountability

UPDATED: Tue., Nov. 3, 2015

Now that David Condon has broken the curse of the one-term mayor, Spokane really needs him to get in his DeLorean and go back in time – back to the days when he was the challenger and not the incumbent.

The city needs someone to break china, not protect the teacups. To focus fiercely on problems, not spin and election braggadocio. To be the leader who fired Rocky Treppiedi, not the one who can’t seem to manage hiring and firing. To attack the status quo – even if it’s his own status quo.

Condon has become Spokane’s first re-elected mayor since the Nixon era. On balance, he has proved to be an effective leader. His list of accomplishments include settling the Otto Zehm case and making significant but unfinished strides in police reform, improving the city’s budgeting process, and overseeing a creative new way of building street and infrastructure projects – an important-but-boring bit of civic business that has drawn attention from around the country. He has proven to be less ideological and more pragmatic than many of his critics claim, and even in a time of political conflict at City Hall, he has often held himself – publicly, at least – above the fray.

But this has been a dismal year for Condon, the self-described “action guy” who has seemed to be protecting his incumbency by treading water and playing defense on crisis after crisis. He looked unbeatable a year ago, and then more beatable with every passing day. Condon the candidate would have eviscerated Condon the incumbent.

He needs to hire a police chief, to replace the reformer he championed and then fired. He needs to hire a planning director, a position that has been open since the controversial departure of Scott Chesney. He needs to rebuild the sunken ship of police accountability and demonstrate that he’s not merely paying lip service to the issue. And it wouldn’t be a surprise if he had to replace other members of his cabinet, given that second terms often give rise to the departure of those burned-out and embittered by the grind.

In particular, progress in the police department, once the brightest feather in Condon’s cap, has come to a screeching and discouraging halt. It clearly ain’t fixed, and if Condon keeps telling us it is, it will be failure No. 1 of term No. 2.

Top to bottom, 2015 has been a terrible year for police accountability and City Hall management of the department, starting with the still unexplained transfer-plus-pay-raise for a police spokeswoman from a job where she was badly needed to one where she is superfluous. Then came the unsatisfactorily explained firing of Chief Frank Straub, who now is holding a lawsuit over the city’s head.

Then, in the past few weeks, we’ve been reminded for the millionth time that – though most officers do a good job – there is something rotten in the department culture. First came sordid allegations of sexual assault and evidence tampering stemming from a drunken party at a cop’s house. Investigators believe the cop suspected of sexual assault was tipped off by “someone with specific knowledge of the investigation at hand,” according to court records.

However that plays out, it belies belief that the officers involved – bingeing and vomiting, passing out, stumbling around in the precincts of sexual assault, lawyering up before giving statements, denying investigators access to information – are going to strap on guns and head out on the streets to enforce the law.

On the heels of that revelation came the news, first reported in The Spokesman-Review by Rachel Alexander on Sunday, that one 18-year veteran of the force has a super-chill attitude about illegal search and seizure. He searched one impounded car without a warrant and seized cash. After he was “counseled” – you know, about the whole Fourth Amendment thing – he said it was “no big deal.” Not long after, he went into another impounded car being stored as evidence in a homicide case without a warrant – this time to borrow jumper cables.

The department’s response was to put a new fence around the vehicle storage facility.

Finally, Condon’s key talking point about crime has come under question. For years now – since roughly Straub’s first day on the job, it seems – the mayor and the city have touted a reduction in crime, based on statistics that it collects and disseminates through a system known as CompStat.

CompStat is familiar to fans of “The Wire” as a system of statistics manipulated by politicians and subject to pressure to cook the figures. Spokane’s CompStat figures have been quite good – showing reductions in crime in lots of categories and overall. Those of us in the media have dutifully reported these figures, and Condon has cited them repeatedly in his re-election campaign.

But according to the FBI, the city’s crime rate hasn’t fallen at all – it’s up 17 percent between 2011 and 2014, including increases in two areas the department has made a point of trying to combat: property crime and vehicle theft.

Condon has argued that the city figures are more recent and more accurate. But the FBI stats tarnish the crime-is-falling narrative.

All of this leaves the city in an unfortunately familiar position: Wondering whether City Hall is up to ensuring that we have a professional, accountable, trustworthy police department.

The new mayor needs to go hard on that question, even though the new mayor is the old mayor.

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

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