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Shawn Vestal: Spokane police Chief Craig Meidl has defied the fears of his critics to become a model leader

Spokane Police Chief Craig Meidl speaks during a news conference in March. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Spokane Police Chief Craig Meidl speaks during a news conference in March. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

When Craig Meidl was named Spokane’s police chief last year, department critics were leery.

Could a saluter be a community-minded, accountable police chief?

Some of us would have said no. Never.

Some of us seem wronger by the day.

In just over a year on the job, Meidl is looking nothing like the kind of chief critics might have feared. He has called out internal problems by name. He has answered his harshest opponents with patience and equanimity. He has looked inward – toward the department itself – to identify problems and seek solutions, rather than deflecting and blaming.

And, perhaps most significantly in terms of mending the broken trust for people who were most troubled by the Otto Zehm case, he has been a face of accountability – if not exactly apology – for the salute. So far as I know, he is the only one of the 50 or so Spokane cops who saluted Karl Thompson in front of his victim’s family who has spoken about it, listened in person to critics and taken responsibility.

It’s early, of course. One year in, former Chief Frank Straub was looking like a success to me, too – even as whispers of his tyrannical behavior grew. I thought maybe that was just a byproduct of a toughness required for tackling a tough problem. History has shown that to be a pretty ridiculous assumption.

But, overall, if Meidl’s first 13 months as chief are any indication, he has done more than rise above the lowest expectations of his doubters. He’s acting like the kind of chief the community has needed all along.

Not a bureaucrat delivering patronizing lectures to the citizenry. Not a defensive, blunt reformer simmering with anger. Not the outsider so many believed was necessary – but an insider’s insider, who was present at the department’s lowest moment, and who has begun establishing a record of public accountability that seems to strike a balance between frankness and fairness.

He does not seem to just defend and deflect. He does not seem to look only outward when defining problems and seeking solutions.

He looks inward.

This simple quality – looking inward – may be the most important characteristic we need in a police chief, at this stage of the department’s progress. Someone willing to recognize and identify problems. Someone who’s not eager to close the books, consider the work all done – because there has, in fact, been substantial progress in reforming the department. Someone who’s not looking outside the department to explain problems within it.

A recent example of this is Meidl’s approach to reforming the SPD’s policies regarding when officers can use force on suspects. Approached by ombudsman Bart Logue about the possibility of improving policies to more strongly encourage minimizing force, Meidl told him he’d been thinking the same thing.

“I’ll tell you, the world is not getting safer, and what that means is we need to look at our tactics,” Meidl said in an interview with the S-R last month. “How do we keep our officers safer and take a suspect into custody safer?”

Last week, Meidl said in an interview that he believes the department can further modify its tactics in ways that de-escalate potentially violent interactions. Officers can sometimes focus more on using distance, cover and time to let confrontations dissipate, he said, and challenge some of the assumptions about how to bring conflicts to an end.

It’s not always time for the “iron fist,” he said.

He also favors adding language to the department policy that explicitly states the preservation of life, or sanctity of life, is a priority.

It’s refreshing – and not at all typical – to hear a police leader citing violence in the world not as a justification for police behavior but as a reason to change it. And whether Meidl comes to the same conclusions as Logue is not initially as important, at least in my mind, as the fact that he’s willing to look inward.

That’s because looking inward is what one would fear a saluter wouldn’t do. Looking inward is what it has sometimes seemed most officers in the department would never do – always seeming instead to blame critics, the community, the press.

Meidl has tried to explain where he and other officers were coming from when they saluted Thompson, as longtime friends and colleagues who did not recognize the impact their actions in that moment might have, he has said. He said he has come to recognize how distressing it was for some members of the community as a measure of the officers’ bad faith, and he has spent a lot of time listening to people tell him so.

That very process – the face-to-face confronting of that action – has been an important part of restoring some sense of trust. And it’s something that someone who was not involved in that action could not accomplish.

Recent years have taught us to be cautious about making judgments about what’s happening with police leadership. But Meidl’s first year on the job – and in particular his willingness to be the one who sits before the community as the face of the department’s past mistakes – has overturned assumptions about how the department might mend the relationship with its most skeptical critics.

In other words: What if Meidl turns out to be a good chief not despite the fact that he was a saluter, but because he was?