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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Meidl addresses Thompson salute, desire for full City Hall buy-in at public forum

Newly named Spokane police Chief Craig Meidl answers questions  during a public forum at the West Central Community Center on Thursday night. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

Craig Meidl acknowledged Thursday night that a strained relationship at City Hall had led to his appearance before a crowded room of residents at the West Central Community Center.

“Part of police legitimacy is process, so I understand it,” Meidl said. “What I am trying to do is help with that process, by asking to be confirmed. By agreeing to the community forum, I’m doing what I can, at some level, to hopefully give the community a little peace that I’m doing everything I can.”

Meidl sat down the hallway from where Mayor David Condon three weeks ago introduced two men as finalists to permanently replace police Chief Frank Straub. Condon chose neither, appointing Meidl and saying he wouldn’t immediately seek City Council approval of the nomination, as is seemingly required by the city charter and municipal code.

The City Council then took the unprecedented step of pushing forward wtih a confirmation process on their own. The community forum Thursday night, attended by a little more than 100 residents, was held at the direction of the council, which will push ahead with its own approval process and an up-or-down vote on his nomination Aug. 22.

“This council has been put in an untenable position, being put in between the citizens we serve and the smooth operation of our police department – a police department that deserves to have certainty about leadership and stability,” said City Councilwoman Lori Kinnear, who introduced Meidl.

Residents who came forward Thursday asked Meidl pointedly why he hadn’t applied to go through the interview process, where he’d take the department and what the chief nominee referred to as “the elephant in the room,” his participation in a courtroom salute to Karl Thompson, the former Spokane police officer convicted of civil rights violations in the death of Otto Zehm.

Meidl, who has said he’s donated money to the Thompson family but also met with Zehm’s parents and apologized earlier this year, said he would consider requesting other officers involved in the salute apologize publicly as well. But he believed most of those involved in the salute were “trying to move forward.”

“It’s obviously a sore wound for the community, clearly a sore wound for the Zehm family as well,” Meidl said, stressing he didn’t want to continue the hurt. “But it’s also a sore wound for the Spokane Police Department. At some point, when do you say we’re moving forward?”

Meidl supports a City Council initiative to hire additional neighborhood resource officers that he said would help West Central specifically, where property crime is spiking. He promised to continue a relationship with the local chapter of the NAACP and said the department needs to address the implicit racial bias affecting police across the nation.

Meidl, who’s served in multiple positions in the department in a 22-year career from patrol officer to captain and assistant chief, also said he understands the importance of unions and that he wouldn’t put the city at legal risk by pushing unilateral reforms that clearly needed to be bargained with officers under employment law.

“Having gone through the ranks, you understand the intent behind unions,” Meidl said. “I think this is one of the misnomers, and I need to clear this up. Unions care about what the community thinks of them. They really do. They don’t want a bad reputation, because it reflects on the department. But unions exist to protect their employees.”

One of those issues that has already prompted requests for bargaining is access by the Office of Police Ombudsman to body camera footage. The Spokane Police Guild earlier this summer requested bargaining when Interim Police Ombudsman Bart Logue sought access to footage for his assistant.

Meidl said he believed the arm of civilian oversight in the department did have the authority to do its job reviewing cases.

“My sense is that he actually has a fair amount of ability to compel interviews and questions,” Meidl said of the office and Logue, who is a candidate for permanent ombudsman.

Meidl also addressed why he didn’t initially apply for the job, saying he didn’t want an incoming chief from outside the department to feel as though he was always competing with an assistant.

“To remove any doubt about that – no, I will introduce you to the department, I will introduce you to policies and procedures, City Hall leaders, so on and so forth – I wanted to avoid that entire spectrum of concern,” Meidl said.

Kelly Mathews, of the Spokane Feminist Forum, asked Meidl what he would do if a young female employee came to him with complaints of sexual harassment, a charge that was leveled against Straub. Meidl said he would immediately open an investigation.

Mathews said she felt that answer took “the diplomatic route,” like many other answers she heard Thursday evening. She said she appreciated Meidl appearing and taking the questions, and was most heartened by his humility.

“There were more than a few times where he sat there and thought, before he answered,” Mathews said after the forum. “And my favorite answer he gave was, I don’t know. That’s really rare, for anyone in a public position, to give that kind of an answer.”

Resident Cicily Thompson, a Spokane native, called the process nominating Meidl a “sloppy situation” and asked how he would show the city his integrity. Meidl responded that he would be honest and was reaching out by agreeing to the forums and approval by the council.

Thompson said she wasn’t satisfied with some of Meidl’s answers, particularly that he wouldn’t require an apology from other officers for the Zehm salute.

“I think he said, I’m still not going to hold my brothers accountable,” Thompson said.

City Councilman Mike Fagan said he was encouraged by the answers Meidl gave but would reserve final judgment until after a second public forum.

“There were a lot of great concerns that came from the community,” Fagan said. “I’m hoping people walked away tonight with a better understanding of the chief’s qualifications – the chief’s heart, especially. The one thing that people need to remember is, at the end of the day, we’re all human. As humans, we’re prone to making mistakes.”

Meidl will appear at a second public forum, scheduled for Wednesday from 6 to 8 p.m. at the East Central Community Center, 500 S. Stone St.