Former Police Chief Frank Straub described his management style as direct, honest and blunt, but denied Wednesday that he had been abusive or obscene while managing sometimes difficult changes in the Spokane Police Department.
Straub also said he believes a wide-ranging series of reforms and new initiatives – including federal oversight of the department’s practices and a shift toward a more precinct-oriented model of community policing – are established firmly enough that his successor can move forward with them.
“My job was to come in, make changes, put things in place, build a strong foundation,” Straub said in an interview Wednesday afternoon. “At some point, I was always going to leave.”
Straub was forced out of his job this week in a sudden turn of events. Though criticisms of the chief’s management style had been bubbling under the surface, it was only in the months since the high-profile departure of department spokeswoman Monique Cotton, who moved to the city parks department, that the complaints reached a breaking point.
Most recently, members of the Lieutenants and Captains Association approached Mayor David Condon to complain about Straub’s “unprofessional and even hostile behavior,” according to a memo released by Condon. The memo accused Straub of personal attacks, emotional outbursts, scare tactics, threats, retaliation and untruthfulness, and it was apparently persuasive enough to get the mayor to act quickly. Condon, alongside City Council President Ben Stuckart, announced that Straub was being moved out of his position on Tuesday, and would leave the city payroll at the end of the year.
In his first public comments about the situation Wednesday, Straub said he doesn’t agree with the assessments in the union letter.
“I don’t accept all of it,” he said. “I’m direct. I’m to the point. I call it the way I see it. I had a sense of urgency to get things done.”
The picture that has emerged from Straub’s critics is that he yelled, belittled and cursed at people in the department.
“I have not cursed at people,” he said. “I have cursed in my conversations with people, but I don’t know that that is out of the norm. I have tried to treat everyone in the department with respect.”
He said that he arrived to make big changes in a department in turmoil, and that his frequent staffing changes and “difficult conversations” with people were a result of that.
“It’s a long story,” he said. “I think it’s difficult to come into a city and be a change agent. It’s unsettling for some people.”
He added, “I’m from New York, so I tend to be very direct and to the point. I always tried to be honest and tell people exactly where I stood.”
Regarding the departure of Cotton, Straub said she left to pursue better opportunities for her career. “I have the utmost respect for her,” he said. “I think she’s an incredibly talented (public information officer).”
Straub was hired in 2012. Critics of the process said Condon had hand-picked Straub, and they pointed to some controversies that Straub had left behind him in his former job in Indianapolis. Condon did recruit Straub, and picked him against the advice of an advisory committee of law enforcement officials, but Straub also was supported by citizen committees involved in the selection process.
Condon and Straub faced a tough task in trying to reform and improve the police department and its relationship with the community, following the disgraceful chapter of the Otto Zehm case – a disgrace that was threaded throughout the entire city government, from Officer Karl Thompson to the members of the department who peddled lies and performed an incredibly shoddy investigation to the city’s blame-the-victim legal strategy.
Straub came in and oversaw the department’s response to the citizen Use of Force Commission, which outlined a series of recommended reforms. He helped forge a new city law governing the oversight of the police department. He helped implement a variety of initiatives that have improved officers’ interactions with mentally ill people, and he established a body camera program. He implemented close statistical monitoring of crime rates, which showed significant declines on his watch.
However bad a boss Straub was – and the fact that his critics persuaded the mayor to take this action against his hand-picked chief says a lot – many of the changes he implemented were important. It will be critical that the city not let momentum on those initiatives lapse, because we are at the exact point, it seems, where all of the reform energy and political battles to get this far could dead-end at the point where the talk is supposed to turn into the walk.
Straub said he believes the department is poised to move forward, and he believes he’s had a lot to do with that. That seems undeniable. It’s also true that responsibility for whatever momentum is lost at this point must rest with him, too. It’s always very difficult to sort out competing narratives and find the one strand of perfect truth – it’s usually shared among the different sides.
In this case, the abundance of voices describing a management style that was way out of bounds, along with the mayor’s speedy response to it, are hard to dismiss.
Straub said he’s leaving a record he’s proud of. “I really leave with my head held high, despite the letters and innuendos,” he said.
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