Spokane Mayor David Condon bypassed all the candidates to be Spokane’s next police chief and instead chose Assistant Chief Craig Meidl to lead the department.
Condon’s surprise decision to ignore his own selection process sparked controversy in the department and outrage from some community members who participated in the search for a new chief.
“Sometimes you have to look far and wide to discover what you’re looking for has been in the department the entire time,” Condon said Monday.
He called Meidl the “best fit” for Spokane, noting his work on reform efforts.
Meidl, 45, said Condon first approached him about a week ago to take over the department on a permanent basis.
“We are at a pivotal point in our nation, and our community,” Meidl said. “Police departments across the nation are facing very high expectations, multiple competing interests, limited budgets, intense scrutiny and advanced technology that creates ongoing challenges.”
By selecting Meidl, Condon opted against hiring the two finalists who interviewed for the job last month. They were Robert Lehner, the 61-year-old chief of police in Elk Grove, California, and Yakima police Chief Dominic Rizzi Jr., 54.
Lt. Dave McCabe, who serves as president of the police Lieutenants and Captains Association, said he was shocked by the announcement.
“I can’t believe that the mayor chose somebody who has said for many months he did not want the job,” said McCabe, who added that he was speaking for himself and not for the association, which has not yet discussed the selection. “He didn’t apply for the job and he didn’t go through the same process that the other chief candidates went through.”
Only one internal candidate, downtown precinct Capt. Brad Arleth, said publicly he had applied for the chief job. Arleth was one of 10 semifinalists selected by the search firm the city used to screen applications, but he was not among the finalists for the job.
After the finalists were interviewed in Spokane, City Council President Ben Stuckart called on Condon to interview more candidates.
Lehner said in a prepared statement Monday he understood the “the complex, difficult situation faced by the city” in naming its next chief and thanked Condon for the consideration.
“My very best wishes are with the City of Spokane and the many dedicated men and women that provide policing services to its residents,” Lehner wrote.
Condon said Monday he might not seek the City Council’s confirmation of Meidl as the chief. The mayor and council members have been at odds, especially after the release of a report last week indicating the mayor’s staff delayed the release of embarrassing public records related to former Chief Frank Straub’s alleged abusive behavior until after his re-election. Condon and his staff have denied those findings.
Rick Eichstaedt, executive director of the Center for Justice, said allowing the council to confirm Meidl is necessary if Condon wants the public to trust his decision.
“In the absence of the public process that was anticipated and that occurred for the other two candidates it’s critical that this go quickly to a confirmation process,” he said. “There’s a lot of issues in trust and perceived mismanagement going on at City Hall. We need to follow a process for a chief of police that the public feels they have somebody who’s well vetted.”
Police brass present for the mayor’s announcement, many of whom were temporarily promoted under the latest department reorganization, praised Meidl for his leadership and honesty.
“Chief Meidl is a man of impeccable integrity,” said Maj. Justin Lundgren.
Eric Olsen, the director of investigations, praised Meidl’s “heart” and said the department would benefit from him being able to hit the ground running.
But others said they disagreed with the mayor’s decision and had concerns the regular hiring process was circumvented.
McCabe noted that Meidl wasn’t selected to be interim chief after Straub was forced to resign last September or after two interim leaders, Rick Dobrow and James McDevitt, left the department.
“It concerns me as far as what the mayor’s thinking process was, because Craig wasn’t good enough to be named interim chief when Straub resigned, he wasn’t good enough to be named interim chief when Dobrow retired and he wasn’t good enough to be interim chief when McDevitt left,” McCabe said.
McCabe has disagreed with the process used for recent out-of-grade promotions among command staff, saying they bypassed other captains with more experience. But he said his criticism of Condon’s decision was not rooted in personal disagreement with Meidl.
“I don’t have a personal problem with Craig. We got along very well. We do have some differences of opinion in the last several months,” he said.
Community members who participated in the hiring process also voiced frustrations with Condon’s appointment.
Mary Ann Murphy, who led an advisory committee that collected community feedback and gave Condon recommendations on the search process and qualifications for a new chief, said Monday’s announcement “slapped the community in the face.”
“He is not a man of his word. He gave us his word he would follow our recommendations, and this is as far from our recommendations as could be imagined,” Murphy said.
“Regardless of how you feel about him on a personal level, if Craig Meidl wanted to be considered a candidate, then he should have had to go through the same interview and selection process that the other candidates were put through,” wrote Sandy Williams, the editor of Black Lens News, who served on an interview panel. “Instead, he was able to bypass the entire process, with what feels very much like a back door appointment … it does nothing to rebuild the trust between the Spokane community and the Spokane Police Department.”
Not everyone who participated in interviews was critical. Bart Logue, the interim police ombudsman, said he’d heard from several community members who supported an internal candidate for the department.
Meidl has always been open to his ideas, Logue said, and recently volunteered to mediate a discussion between the Spokane Police Guild and the ombudsman’s office about access to body camera footage.
“He didn’t have to do that, but he’s willing to sit down and work for that compromise,” Logue said.
Meidl has been with the department since 1994 and formerly served as assistant chief under Straub before taking a voluntary demotion to lieutenant in 2014. Meidl has since said he made the choice because he felt Straub was asking him to compromise his integrity and said he couldn’t work in an environment where Straub was yelling at him and other subordinates regularly.
Following his demotion, Meidl spent about a year as captain of the Hillyard Precinct before being moved up to assistant chief temporarily under Dobrow.
Meidl has a master’s degree in organizational leadership from Gonzaga University, he said Monday. The committee Murphy chaired recommended candidates be required to hold at least a bachelor’s degree, something Dobrow cited when he opted to retire rather than apply for the job.
Meidl was one of many Spokane police officers who saluted Karl Thompson, the officer convicted of civil rights violations in the death of Otto Zehm, as Thompson was led from a federal courtroom. Meidl said in December the salute was an instinctive response and offered to accept a demotion as a result of his actions because he was the most senior officer who took part in the salute. Meidl, however, was not disciplined.
Eichstaedt said the salute shouldn’t disqualify Meidl from serving, but said Meidl needs to make an unqualified apology for his participation instead of merely offering an explanation.
Murphy said appointing someone involved in the salute was a betrayal of the community input process she oversaw.
“None of the people who saluted, lacking a prior apology, should advance one more step in their career,” she said, paraphrasing testimony her committee received.
On Monday, Meidl said the justice system “worked exactly how it was supposed to” when Thompson was sent to prison.
“I can’t be in this position unless I honor the justice system and the decisions that the justice system makes,” Meidl said.
Meidl also addressed an email he sent in 2011 that was first published by the Inlander. In that email, which Meidl acknowledged Monday he sent, Meidl called Thompson “the most professional officer on the department. If it could happen to him, it could happen to me.” It also read, “An innocent man was found guilty.”
Meidl said the email was intended to express the views of the department as a whole following the outcome of the trial. He said they were “absolutely not” indicative of his perspective on the case.
“The department was extremely sad, very depressed,” Meidl said. “There was extremely low morale. I’ve never seen it that low before, or since.”
Meidl said he met with Zehm’s family prior to accepting Condon’s nomination Monday.
Brian Coddington, the mayor’s spokesman, said Meidl’s salary had not been finalized. He earned $149,116.50 as a captain last year, according to city records. The advertised salary range for the chief job was between $148,686 and $185,532, Coddington said.This story was changed on Aug. 2, 2016 to fix an error regarding Meidl’s involvement in a courtroom salute of Karl Thompson. Although Meidl said he offered to be demoted over the incident, he was not disciplined.
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