Former U.S. Attorney Jim McDevitt hasn’t started his new job running the Spokane police department, but his appointment already has ruffled some feathers on the mayor’s police leadership committee.
Mayor David Condon announced McDevitt would serve as a temporary “law enforcement director” last week after interim police Chief Rick Dobrow announced his retirement, effective March 1. That announcement surprised some members of Condon’s police leadership advisory committee, who were appointed to provide recommendations on the police chief job description and search process.
McDevitt has been serving on the committee since it was formed last fall, but resigned after a tense meeting Monday where several committee members questioned his views on race and policing, in part based on an op-ed he wrote last year for The Spokesman-Review.
In that op-ed, he says protests over police shooting young black men ignores the “real problem” of black-on-black violent crime.
“As a result of this high instance of crime on the part of young men of color in some areas, law enforcement there develops a ‘convenient shortcut.’ This mental shortcut becomes almost irresistible. It is a somewhat rational form of profiling,” McDevitt wrote.
Several committee members, including NAACP president Naima Quarles-Burnley and Human Rights Commission chair Blaine Stum, said it appears McDevitt supports racial profiling based on his writing. They also said discussions on the committee about race have led them to believe McDevitt doesn’t understand the effect of systemic racism on society.
“To me, his appointment flies in the face of all the recommendations the (committee) had given to the mayor,” Quarles-Burnley said. “To have someone in a leadership role who really does not fundamentally understand how racism has impacted our society or how it has affected our city is detrimental, to say the least.”
McDevitt said the op-ed was based on his years working as U.S. attorney, where he saw how poverty, unemployment and other social factors drive crime. He said he was attempting to explain why officers might engage in racial profiling, not defend their actions.
“I was not in any way, shape or form endorsing racial profiling. I was just saying it exists,” he said.
He chose to resign from the committee Monday because he didn’t want to create a real or perceived conflict of interest or force his fellow members to vote him off.
“I said, ‘I’m not going to sit here and let my integrity be bashed about.’ But I wasn’t angry. I was very matter-of-fact,” he said.
Following the dispute, Condon went over to the Native Project, where the committee was meeting, to discuss their concerns. He said he understand why the editorial might raise eyebrows, but said McDevitt needs to be judged on his entire record, including his decision to prosecute the Otto Zehm case.
“You can see his commitment to a holistic view of policing and the criminal justice system,” Condon said.
Not everyone in the group took issue with McDevitt’s appointment. Committee chair Mary Ann Murphy said she disagreed with the content of the op-ed and some of McDevitt’s political beliefs, but wished him well in the temporary job.
“I see this as a strong move by the mayor to put Jim in there because he does have a record as the region’s top law enforcement officer,” she said, referring to his time as U.S. attorney.
Kennewick police Chief Ken Hohenberg, who also served on the committee, said he hadn’t read the piece, but believed McDevitt’s track record spoke for itself.
“He has been a strong advocate of justice, equal justice for everyone,” he said.
McDevitt’s appointment has also raised some more logistical questions from the City Council. Council president Ben Stuckart submitted a letter to Condon following a Public Safety Committee meeting Monday with seven questions about how the role will work.
Many of them stem from the fact that McDevitt is a civilian and cannot be chief of police, since state law requires chiefs to be commissioned law enforcement officers. The Spokane Municipal Code says a police chief leads the police department. Stuckart’s letter asks for the legal rationale for appointing a civilian head, and also asks about McDevitt’s compensation and whether he will have authority to hire and fire city employees.
Condon said city legal staff are working to answer Stuckart’s questions and review what powers he will have, and which ones will be delegated to Assistant Chief Craig Miedl. The mayor wants McDevitt to focus on continuing work with the Spokane Regional Law and Justice Council and the Department of Justice to implement reform efforts.
McDevitt’s pay will be set somewhere on the existing scale for police chief, Condon said, which is $148,700 to $182,500. As for creating a temporary law enforcement director position, Condon said he did the same thing when former Chief Frank Straub first came to Spokane because he was not yet a commissioned officer in Washington.
Stuckart said he was also aware of concerns about McDevitt’s views on race, but said he had a private conversation with McDevitt this week and felt satisfied with his response.
“I worked with Jim for the last two years. I have high confidence in his ability … I just have concerns about a civilian” leading the police department, he said. Condon anticipates providing answers to the questions next week.
McDevitt said he hopes to be a “stabilizing force” during his short tenure at the police department and has no intention of seeking the permanent job. He strongly believes in looking forward, not backward, he said.
“We’re not going to talk about Otto Zehm anymore. That’s over. That’s history. We learned our lessons and we’re moving forward,” he said.
His goals include increasing community outreach and looking at ways the department can help tackle root issues of crime and focus on prevention.
“You cannot arrest your way or jail your way out of a crime problem. You have to look a lot deeper,” he said.
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