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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Spokane Police chief finalists address transparency, use of force at community forum

Spokane police chief candidates Robert Lehner, left, and Dominic Rizzi, right, listen to Mayor David Condon open a public meeting to introduce them to a packed room of citizens, July 20, 2016, at the West Central Community Center. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Spokane police chief candidates Robert Lehner, left, and Dominic Rizzi, right, listen to Mayor David Condon open a public meeting to introduce them to a packed room of citizens, July 20, 2016, at the West Central Community Center. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
By Kip Hill and Rachel Alexander The Spokesman-Review

The two remaining men Mayor David Condon may select to become Spokane’s next police chief vowed to be transparent, fight corruption and talk to the community about use of force.

But many community members who attended an hourlong community forum with the two finalists on Wednesday said they were left with little opinion of the two men and would have liked an opportunity for more direct interaction with the candidates.

The public forum was held after the candidates were interviewed in private sessions with panels selected by the mayor.

Robert Lehner, the 61-year-old chief of police in Elk Grove, California, and Yakima Police Chief Dominic Rizzi Jr., 54, answered questions submitted by email in front of a crowd of roughly 150 people at the West Central Community Center. In two-minute bursts, the two finalists for the job gave their qualifications from decades in law enforcement and made their pitch for the job, which has been filled on a temporary basis by three different people since Frank Straub was forced from office in September.

Rizzi said he’s been successful in restoring community trust in Yakima by giving his officers professional training and holding them to higher standards.

“You will see a tremendous difference between Yakima five years ago and Yakima today,” he said.

Lehner touted his work at the Eugene Police Department in the mid-2000s, inheriting a department in the midst of allegations of two sexual assaults involving officers and a union whose management had turned into “open warfare.”

“I won’t say it was perfect, but it was better than when I got there,” Lehner said.

The forum followed a frenzied day of questioning from community panels involving 41 interviewers, 15 of whom have a background in law enforcement in Spokane or elsewhere. James Dermody, a 50-year-old captain in the Seattle Police Department, withdrew from consideration Wednesday after traveling to Spokane to be interviewed.

On transparency, Lehner promised to make “any kind of record” available when he was legally allowed to do so and said he would support expanding the scope of Washington’s public records law.

“I can tell you in Arizona that worked better,” Lehner said, referring to his time working as a police officer in Tucson.

Rizzi said his business card listed his cellphone number, joking that might “get him into trouble” in Spokane but that he was committed to making himself available to the public.

“The population here is nearly double, so I’ll get more than double the phone calls, but it’s not going to deter any way that I do business,” he said.

Addressing the ongoing violence that has resulted in attacks against officers and widely publicized videos of officers using sometimes deadly force against people of color, Lehner said the United States is in the middle of “the most profound shift of policing in America in history.”

He then paused and asked television reporters to make sure the cameras were rolling before saying, “No one should ever die at the hands of a police officer. No police officer should ever die at anyone’s hands.”

Rizzi said the key for a department with officers who are involved in fatal shootings is to be transparent throughout an investigation. The decision on criminally charging officers lies with prosecutors, he said, who must follow “the letter of the law.” But he suggested those laws, and the charging decisions that are made, should also be reviewed.

“If the letter of the law gives so much protection to an officer who violates it, then there’s something wrong,” Rizzi said.

Race was rarely addressed explicitly, though Rizzi did speak about the need to recognize implicit bias in police officers and better train them to deal with people from diverse cultures.

“Underrepresented groups probably have a lot of negative interactions with law enforcement,” he said, “and that goes back to our biases.”

Lehner said it was important to make sure residents from all backgrounds had an opportunity to address their concerns to the police department.

“You have to reach out to them,” he said. “They must be included in the conversation.”

Spokane NAACP President Phil Tyler, who also served on one of the interview panels, said he didn’t think he had enough information to say whether either candidate would meaningfully address relationships with people of color.

“They’re using the language. When you’re using just buzzwords to me, it shows a surface level of understanding about that process,” Tyler said. “I would have liked to have heard more examples of them identifying the implicit bias in themselves.”

Doug Haigen, a Spokane resident who attended the forum, said he believed Lehner appeared “more assertive” in his answers, but both men answered the questions to his satisfaction.

Jeremy Street, a Cheney resident who sat chatting with Haigen after the presentation, said he didn’t think the pair had enough time to weigh in.

“But I think they both asserted the idea that police need to be accountable,” Street said.

Liz Moore, director of the Peace and Justice Action League, said she didn’t have a preference between the candidates based on such a short and structured period of questions.

“An hour doesn’t really give the public a lot to go on. The hours of interviews that were happening today at City Hall were not open to the public,” she said.

Tyler agreed, adding that people he spoke to after the meetings didn’t have strong impressions of either candidate.

“People weren’t enthused one way or another,” he said.

Condon disputed comments that the process was not open or transparent enough, saying the hiring process has lasted months and included community input both before the search and during the interview process.

He said the search was the “most extensive” the city has done for a chief, citing the fact that 31 people applied for the job – nearly triple the number who applied in 2012.

Condon said last week through a spokesman that he would make a decision a few days after Wednesday’s interviews. The City Council will vote on whether to approve Condon’s appointment for the job.

City Council President Ben Stuckart and City Councilman Breean Beggs, both of whom served on interview panels, declined comment on the candidates Wednesday.

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