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Shawn Vestal: Just who runs the Spokane Police Department, anyway?

Imagine for a moment that Spokane police received a report of a rape at a party.

Say the victim is a police officer.

Say the suspect is a plumber.

Then imagine this: A key member of the police department – a decorated veteran who is also the union president but who is not investigating the case – proceeds to call the plumber to let him know what’s going on. This union president, who is kept in the loop from the first instant by, among others, the assistant chief of police, calls the plumber less than 30 minutes after learning of the report.

Imagine that he calls the plumber before he provides assistance to the victim. Who, remember, is a police officer.

I know. Ludicrous. Insane. Unimaginable.

But try. And then try to imagine that this decorated veteran who is also the union president, after a second briefing from the assistant police chief the morning after the report, calls the plumber again, after having heard that detectives are planning to get a warrant to obtain DNA samples but before they have actually gotten a judge to issue the warrant. Right about the same time, the decorated veteran who is also union president is asked to peruse a draft of a news release about the rape before it goes out, and says he’ll let the plumber know about it.

The plumber then gets an attorney. Who then calls … not the investigating officers but the decorated veteran, who is also the union president, who has been so very communicative with the plumber. The attorney then offers to have the warrant executed in his office – police can come and get the plumber’s DNA swabs at his attorney’s office, the attorney offers.

Once they actually get the search warrant.

By the time a judge signs a warrant and the cops arrive, the plumber’s fingernails, a potential source of the victim’s DNA, are trimmed so closely that they can’t take a sample.

Pretty lucky plumber, eh?

The victim might want a different union president, though.

This hypothetical was brought to you by the real-world case against Spokane police Sgt. John Gately, with one important exception: The plumber was a police officer. And whatever excuses there are for Gately’s involvement in the very early stages of the investigation – as either the union president or a member of a team meant to provide assistance to officers – it cannot erase the grotesque picture it paints of a double standard that police apply to the investigation of their own. The wheel of events here lends even more urgency, if that’s possible, to the need to rebuild and strengthen this city’s oversight of that department.

Gately has pleaded not guilty to two felony charges: rendering criminal assistance to a suspected felon and obstructing a law enforcement officer. These charges arise from his actions in allegedly alerting Sgt. Gordon Ennis that a fellow officer had accused him of rape on Oct. 25; phone records show that Gately called Ennis twice after being updated on the status of the investigation. By the time police obtained a search warrant, Ennis had lawyered up and cut his fingernails so close that they couldn’t obtain samples for DNA analysis.

Gately’s attorney, David Allen, did not return a message seeking comment this week but has said in the past that “John is innocent, and we are going to aggressively fight these charges.” Gately’s role as the union president has been raised as an explanation for his involvement, but is that what a union rep does for you when you’re a cop? If it is, it shouldn’t be.

It’s been challenging to sort through the recent tsunami of dispiriting revelations about the police department – a relentless crumbling that has taken Spokane from a position of pride in its police reforms to a depressing sense that reforms remain out of reach. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Gately’s recent couple of years in the news has made that clear. He was a daily presence at the Karl Thompson trial – right by Thompson’s side right up until his conviction – and then showed his support afterward by planning a potluck for him. Then, as the head of the Guild, he was dragooned into helping to sell the city’s compromise on the ombudsman ordinance to the public; it is impossible to forget his lackluster, unenthusiastic attempt to act like he was supporting police reform, when he and his organization fought it every step of the way.

In the Ennis case, court records present a picture of Gately’s involvement in the earliest moments of the investigation – a level of involvement that Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich calls inappropriate.

The victim, a young police officer, reported she had been assaulted by Ennis at a party at about 6:30 on the night of Oct. 25. Two hours later, Gately was notified by Assistant Chief Selby Smith, who said he did so because Gately was part of a team that might provide assistance to the victim. Gately called Ennis shortly thereafter. Only then did he call another officer to help the victim. Court records describe zero calls by Gately to the victim.

The next morning, Smith updated Gately again. At that point, sheriff’s investigators were planning to get a warrant for Ennis’ DNA. That took longer than expected, and Gately was updated about this by another officer at 11:20 the morning of Oct. 26.

By 11:36, he was on the phone to Ennis. He was also involved in discussions about what to include in the news release. No wonder that Ennis’ attorney, Rob Cossey – who frequently represents police officers – called Gately first to offer his client’s cooperation, rather than reaching out to the sheriff’s detectives who were working the case.

He probably thought Gately ran the department.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@spokesman.com. Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.