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No police chief search in works; Dobrow named as interim

City of Spokane Interim Chief of Police Rick Dobrow. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)
City of Spokane Interim Chief of Police Rick Dobrow. (Kathy Plonka / The Spokesman-Review)

City leaders have no plans to begin a search for a permanent police chief after the Tuesday ouster of Frank Straub, a move police reform advocates say is a mistake.

Assistant Chief Rick Dobrow, a 21-year veteran of the Spokane Police Department, was appointed interim chief Tuesday. Though he doesn’t meet the minimum qualifications for the chief job, city officials say he’s well-positioned to rebuild trust with officers after Straub’s divisive management.

“Right now what’s really important is stability. Rick’s perfect, he’s been on the force, he has the trust of Lieutenants and Captains,” said City Council President Ben Stuckart, referring to one of the department’s unions.

Straub, 56, was abruptly forced out as chief following complaints from police leadership about his abrasive management, which they said included personal attacks, emotional outbursts, scare tactics, threats, retaliation and inappropriate language.

The two public safety unions that represent police employees were split on Straub’s leadership. The Lieutenants and Captains Association detailed concerns about Straub to Condon in a meeting earlier this month. In a statement Wednesday, the association praised Condon’s decision to ask for Straub’s resignation citing “serious workplace issues that, if allowed to continue, jeopardized the internal operations of our agency moving forward.”

But Sgt. John Gately, president of the Spokane Police Guild, said in a statement that Straub maintained a good working relationship with guild members.

“He treated our members fairly and worked with the Guild on issues that impacted our members. However, we understand that our experience with Chief Straub was different than the experience of other members of the Spokane Police Department,” the statement said.

Gately did not respond to a call Wednesday seeking comment.

The split in opinion on Straub is opposite the split in union support for Straub’s predecessor, Anne Kirkpatrick, who also was considered a reformer. She enjoyed backing from the Lieutenants and Captains while the guild consistently criticized her leadership.

Straub previously worked as public safety director of Indianapolis and was hand-picked by Mayor David Condon to apply for the open chief job in 2012.

Straub will work in the city attorney’s office until the end of the year and continue earning his $179,484 salary, the highest base salary paid to a city employee.

The police department will continue to pay his salary because he will work on criminal justice issues, city spokesman Brian Coddington said.

As interim chief, Dobrow will receive a pay increase, but city officials are not yet sure of his salary. His 2014 salary was $158,524.

No decision on search

Councilman Jon Snyder, who chairs the city’s public safety committee, said the council needs time to “process” Straub’s departure before moving forward with hiring a permanent chief.

“I don’t think it’s prudent to make a decision on where we’re going to go in that direction now,” he said.

Stuckart agreed, saying a national search might make sense in “a month or two.”

“If we immediately brought in somebody from another community, I don’t know that the trust would be there. We just need to keep pushing forward” with reform, he said.

Other council members said looking for local candidates makes the most sense.

Councilman Mike Allen said he supported finding a replacement for Straub locally or regionally and dismissed the idea that a national search would draw better candidates.

“I think sometimes this whole national search concept is ridiculous. We have plenty of talent in the region and the Northwest to fill a position like that,” he said.

In the search that selected Straub, only 13 candidates applied. None were from Washington.

Allen said he believes Dobrow is fine as interim chief, but perhaps not as a permanent replacement.

“I don’t know that he is the candidate, but he is right for the interim,” he said. Allen said he has a lot of respect for Capt. Craig Meidl, who runs the city’s Hillyard precinct and briefly served as Straub’s assistant chief. Allen said he believes Meidl could make a good chief.

Councilman Mike Fagan said his “first preference would be promotion from within.” He added that such a promotion would have to be done in a “stellar, 110 percent, all-inclusive process” to ensure that a reform-minded candidate is chosen.

“We would of course like to see the hometown team put up a winner. We would like to see somebody come up from the ranks that is qualified,” Fagan said.

Fagan suggested he would watch the process closely to make sure the city’s finances are safeguarded.

“I’ve got the utmost respect for the rank and file, the lieutenants and captains,” Fagan said. “But the bottom line is all about the people that pay the bills. The taxpayer.”

Councilwoman Candace Mumm also supported looking within the department for a new chief.

“I think we do have a lot of talent in our current ranks. I would like us to take a hard look at the people we do have,” she said.

Mumm called on the mayor to include the council through the process.

“My hope is that the council will be involved in the review process for the selection,” she said. “But I am happy that Chief Dobrow was chosen. I think he’s excellent. We will continue to do the fine service we do right now with public safety and improve upon it. I feel positive about where this is going.”

Calls to council members Amber Waldref and Karen Stratton were not returned Wednesday.

The ‘kind of person we want’

Attorney Breean Beggs, a longtime advocate of police reform in Spokane, said the city should start a national search right away.

“Even just the preliminary process of figuring out the job description, what kind of person we want … that will take several months,” he said, based on the amount of time the hiring process for a police ombudsman has taken. “We shouldn’t wait to start doing that. We should start right away.”

Dobrow, 55, said he’s an approachable listener who will continue reform measures and initiatives Straub started while making the department “a place where everybody is energized … and happy to come to work every day.”

He will continue to work on implementing Department of Justice reforms and move the department’s body camera program forward, he said. About half of the officers are wearing a camera as part of a research study.

Council members praised Dobrow for his responsiveness and community engagement, saying he’s frequently at community events and helps council members respond to citizen inquiries.

“Department heads and assistants can be really busy. I’ve just found him to be the most responsive person I’ve ever worked with at the police department,” Stuckart said.

As assistant chief, Dobrow said he observed some of Straub’s hostile behavior, but also praised the former chief’s work to regain public trust in the wake of Otto Zehm’s death in police custody.

Straub “really brought us from quite a dark place to our current tone within the community,” he said. “The working environment could have been better.”

He declined to go into detail, saying a memo made public yesterday from the Lieutenants and Captains Association spoke for itself.

Requirements for the job

A job description on file with the city says a chief may qualify with any combination of education and experience providing the required knowledge, skills and abilities. Generally, the description says that would include a bachelor’s degree and minimum five years supervisory experience in law enforcement.

Dobrow has an associate’s degree and was promoted to lieutenant in May 2011, then captain in September 2013. Straub named him assistant chief in early 2014, a position for which he also didn’t meet minimum qualifications.

He said his long experience on the force, as well as training at the University of Louisville’s Southern Police Institute, should more than qualify him for the chief job.

“I have spent 34 years preparing for this day … I have worked in almost every aspect of municipal law enforcement. The only thing I haven’t touched is a bomb or a dog,” he said.

He said he’s not gunning for a permanent job as chief but would serve if the mayor asked him to.

Beggs said he hasn’t worked with Dobrow in the past and was happy to hear he plans to continue reform efforts. He has no opinion on whether an internal or external candidate is better for police chief, he said, but he believes internal candidates should be compared against a national pool.

“Anyone within the department who’s qualified should be encouraged to apply,” he said.

Center for Justice Executive Director Rick Eichstaedt said he has no concerns about Dobrow as a leader or his qualifications, but he would like a search to start “tomorrow.”

“I don’t think it should be an election issue. They need to get moving,” he said.

Staff writer Nicholas Deshais contributed to this report.
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