Following a string of controversial personnel moves, a fired police chief, a $4 million claim against the city from the ousted chief and allegations against a police sergeant of sexual assault, Spokane’s elected leaders say the time has come for a culture audit of the police department – nearly three years after it was first recommended.
The most recent sign of trouble from the police department came last weekend, when patrol Sgt. Gordon Ennis allegedly sexually assaulted a female officer at a party hosted by fellow Officer Doug Strosahl.
A close examination of the attitude and culture within the department was first called for nearly three years ago by the city’s Use of Force Commission. It was the first recommendation listed among the 26 reforms the group listed after its review of the department in December 2012. When the commission disbanded this year, police leaders insisted the audit was not necessary.
It’s unclear how and when a culture audit would be done, or what it would achieve, but it also was a recommended by the U.S. Department of Justice when it reviewed the department..
When Spokane Mayor David Condon announced on Wednesday the formation of a committee to advise him on the search process for a new police chief, he said the committee should also “provide input about what a cultural audit of the Spokane Police Division should consider.”
Condon said the committee is “uniquely qualified to discuss how we should evaluate our police department culture.”
A culture audit of the department is the last uncompleted, and unaddressed, recommendation from the city’s Use of Force Commission. While city leaders point to the police department’s willingness to follow through with the recommendations as a sign of improvement, the steady beat of bad news in recent months is a setback for a department that has tried to make strides at reforming itself since a former officer was sent to prison following the 2006 death of Otto Zehm, an unarmed man who broke no law and died after he was beaten and hogtied by police.
It’s also a setback for Condon, who made transforming the police department a key goal in his administration and a foundation of his re-election bid. That transformation has included the hiring of now-fired Police Chief Frank Straub, the firing of a combative city attorney who represented the police department, settling the lawsuit against the city from the Zehm family, following through on most the recommendations from the U.S. Department of Justice and the city Use of Force Commission and driving down crime rates.
On Thursday, Condon said he had asked the police chief search committee to look into the “different tools that we might use, different methodologies and ways to address a cultural audit subsequent to the work the committee will be doing in selecting our next police chief.”
The city’s Use of Force Commission recommended that such an audit could be used “to better understand employees’ perceptions, learn how to best encourage productivity, and identify employees who are negatively affecting the company’s culture.”
“In encounters with SPD members, some members of the Commission were struck by a sense of demoralization or defensiveness by some within the ranks and, at the same time, a lack of appreciation for the extent of the breach of trust that has occurred between the SPD and the community that it serves,” the commission noted when making the recommendation.
At a news conference Thursday with Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich and interim Chief Rick Dobrow, Condon said the Justice Department was unable to provide an “avenue” for a culture audit, leading the city to move forward with performing one on its own.
“The cultural audit, we have been working very closely with the Department of Justice over the last several months to determine an avenue to do that. They have not been able to provide that,” Condon said. “That is why yesterday I announced a team that will be coming together from our community to answer four questions, and that being one of them, to facilitate the process to identify the technique, the tools, the modality by which we would do a cultural audit.”
Members of the Spokane City Council appeared to be in full support of the audit.
On Thursday, Council President Ben Stuckart and council members Amber Waldref and Jon Snyder called for a full investigation into the alleged sexual assault after learning that the suspect may have been tipped off by fellow officers about a search warrant seeking cellphone records and DNA samples. The council members were joined in their call by Lutheran Community Services and the Center for Justice.
Stuckart said he spoke to Condon about a culture audit last week and suggested that the time had come for such a review, considering recent news and the lack of a chief.
“The time is ripe for a cultural audit,” he said. “After what came to light this week, it does make it more pressing.”
“There’s still work that needs to be done,” Stuckart said, noting that the city needs to find out if there are attitudes and practices embedded in the department that need to change. “I think what this week points out is that we have a long way to go.”
Snyder, chairman of the city’s Public Safety Committee, said he has supported an audit since it was first recommended.
“My position hasn’t changed,” he said. “I believe they’re making good progress on the recommendations, but the culture audit hasn’t really come to the fore because there’s been so much work done on the other recommendations. All of that work is labor intensive and resource intensive.”
Snyder said the need for a culture audit was strengthened following the recent allegations of sexual assault, as well as the lessening of charges for John Yen, a Spokane police officer accused of pushing in the door of his girlfriend’s home while screaming at her last July. Yen pleaded guilty early this month to trespassing.
“What really bugs me is we’ve made some really big strides … but these situations point out that we have some officers that aren’t committed to the highest standards, and that reflects poorly on the police department,” Snyder said.
Councilwoman Karen Stratton echoed Snyder, saying an audit is “appropriate.”
“We’ve got to restore faith in the police department. The public has to see us being transparent on this,” she said. “We need to get on that. A culture audit would be appropriate, not just to find out what’s wrong, but to find out things that are right, to inform or educate members of the police department that need a little education on what’s appropriate and what’s not.”
Councilman Mike Allen also supported a culture audit but said the city should go further and “reassemble the department to get the things we’re looking for.”
Allen criticized the “constant glut of issues, internally and with the leadership,” and said the department needed to be transformed to “better serve the citizens.”
Snyder couldn’t say if a culture audit would’ve prevented the string of bad news for the department.
“I don’t know,” he said. “You could say that if we had these things done 10 or 15 years ago, Otto Zehm might not have happened.”
But Snyder said it should be clear to officers that they shouldn’t tamper with evidence at the scene of a crime, as is suspected in the recent sexual assault case.
“That is just not acceptable at all,” he said. “That’s beyond the pale.”
Staff writer Nina Culver contributed to this report.
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