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Mayor, police chief lament lack of Justice Department report on police reforms, tout work in the department

UPDATED: Wed., Nov. 22, 2017

FILE - Spokane Police Chief Craig Meidl, standing behind Spokane Mayor David Condon, listens as Condon announces his intention to appoint him for the position of permanent chief during the press conference Monday, Sept. 26, 2016. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
FILE - Spokane Police Chief Craig Meidl, standing behind Spokane Mayor David Condon, listens as Condon announces his intention to appoint him for the position of permanent chief during the press conference Monday, Sept. 26, 2016. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

When the Department of Justice announced this fall it would not be giving Spokane a final report on its efforts to reform the police department, Mayor David Condon personally asked them to reconsider.

For Condon, who has been skeptical of city lawmakers tackling issues he believes are better left to state and federal rulemakers, the request was not about criticizing the Trump administration’s changes to the program reviewing Spokane law enforcement, but rather to put an end note on three years’ worth of work.

“The final report, signed off by the director, I was looking for that,” Condon said in an interview Wednesday. “But I felt comfortable, and as I met with them, they felt very comfortable, with the progress we had made.”

The Oct. 6 visit was part of a regular check-in the mayor conducted with the department’s Community Oriented Policing Services office, which had been conducting a review of the Spokane Police Department since 2013. Spokane’s involvement in the now-scaled-back federal program was profiled Wednesday on the front page of the New York Times, with police Chief Craig Meidl quoted as one of the top law enforcement officials nationwide concerned the reviews were ending.

Meidl said Wednesday he was disappointed the report wasn’t going to be released, because it would have lent credence to reform efforts in the department.

“While I know that we completed all the recommendations, having an outside entity such as the Department of Justice give you that final closing report has a weight to it that we otherwise can’t get,” Meidl said.

The partnership with the Justice Department resulted in 42 recommendations for reform in the department, which included an expanded investigative role for the civilian police ombudsman overseeing internal investigations, a culture audit of the department and increased reporting of use of force incidents. The final report, which the Times reported had been drafted but not delivered, would have given the city its last grade on enacting those reforms.

Meidl said he never saw a copy of the report, but was told it had been completed in summer 2016. Condon also wasn’t given an opportunity to review any final report from the Justice Department, he said.

The last update from the Justice Department on Spokane’s reform efforts came in December 2015. At that time, the department had not yet started work on 10 of the recommendations. The mayor’s office provided an internal progress report from the police department, dated Sept. 15 of this year, indicating completion of all the recommendations, including a cultural audit, which some criticized as incomplete.

In the absence of a final update from Washington, D.C., the Spokane Police Department will instead issue its own final report on the recommendations, in collaboration with local advocacy groups, Meidl said. He expected that report to be complete in the next few months.

Federal review of the department began under previous police Chief Frank Straub. The first calls for involvement by the Justice Department came from former Mayor Mary Verner after the federal conviction of Karl Thompson, a former police officer, for civil rights violations in the March 2006 beating death of Otto Zehm. Condon defeated Verner in the following mayoral election, running on a platform promising reforms in the department.

Under the terms of the Justice Department’s review, known as “collaborative reform,” the recommendations made by the federal authorities were nonbinding. The Times report includes insight from police chiefs and elected officials in other cities, such as Baltimore and Ville Platte, Louisiana, where more stringent, court-ordered reviews were underway or being considered. Officials in those cities told the Times they, too, were concerned the Justice Department’s oversight role was being rolled back under President Donald Trump and Jeff Sessions, the U.S. attorney general.

In a letter to Meidl dated Sept. 19, Russell Washington, then-acting director of the COPS program, said the decision to suspend progress reports on collaborative reform efforts was made to limit “wide-ranging investigative assessments that go beyond the scope of technical assistance and support.”

City Council President Ben Stuckart said Wednesday he hadn’t seen the Times report, but expressed frustration with the Trump White House. Stuckart, once a Democratic candidate for Congress, has led pushes on the council to combat the creation of a religious registry, citing Trump’s campaign rhetoric (which hasn’t been proposed), and condemning his decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris accord, a multinational climate agreement.

“The Trump administration has gotten nothing right so far,” Stuckart said Wednesday. “This just follows that pattern.”

Condon said he believed the Justice Department would continue to provide assistance to local law enforcement agencies under the new direction for the COPS program. He pointed to the declining use of force in the Spokane Police Department, training on how to work with residents experiencing mental illness and increased enrollment in the agency’s youth program as changes that are more important than the release of a report.

“I think people want to see it in the action of their police officers,” Condon said. “I could give you binders and binders of reports provided to the city, that didn’t increase efficiency, or legitimacy. But was it a component? Absolutely.”

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