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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Wanted: Trust in Spokane police force

FILE – A Spokane Police Ford Police Interceptor patrol car in 2014. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

It was January 2016, and Spokane police Officer Chris McMurtrey had a man in his cruiser who he had arrested in a domestic violence case.

The man taunted and threatened McMurtrey, who lost his cool and unleashed a profane tirade against the suspect. McMurtrey’s body camera captured the incident, including him stopping the car to more forcefully berate the suspect.

Chief Craig Meidl would call McMurtrey’s actions the “most atrocious demeanor I have ever seen from an officer here in my 23 years.”

After an internal affairs investigation, McMurtrey was disciplined. But if it weren’t for the fact that news of the outburst had leaked, provoking a public records request that forced it into the open, it never would have come to the public’s attention.

An internal affairs report posted online included a recap of the incident that obscured McMurtrey’s behavior, saying only that a complaint of “conduct unbecoming” was founded.

So City Councilman Breean Beggs, with the support of Ombudsman Bart Logue, sought to change the way the city makes public information about its internal affairs probes. An ordinance being considered would allow the city to post full reports (not mere written summaries) from IA cases in response to public records requests. Right now, the reports are filed with summaries that critics say are brief and watered-down. The McMurtrey case supports that criticism to a T.

As usual, the stumbling block to more sunlight is the Spokane Police Guild. The officers union – which has stood in the way of police reform continually for years – opposes the ordinance. Some Guild members have disputed whether the city formerly posted the full reports online in previous years, as Beggs has noted. (I know several people who have no doubt whatsoever that it did, and who have firsthand experiences looking at those reports.) But Beggs delayed a vote on the ordinance to allow city workers to go back and research that question.

But the primary objection from the Guild is surely not so narrow. It would simply prefer that full reports not be posted online. They’re not alone. Chief Craig Meidl came out against the proposal as well, citing concerns about the morale and reputations of his officers if the information were made public.

“Our employees, who are our most valuable asset, feel that the posting of these IAs is humiliating, it’s embarrassing. It tarnishes the reputation of not only the officers but also the police department,” Meidl said.

Meidl, who has in many ways been a positive, public-minded leader, gets this wrong: If it’s humiliating or embarrassing, it’s not a result of the information being posted; it’s a result of what the information is. If reputations are tarnished, it’s not because the tarnishing information was revealed – it’s because it exists.

Beggs argues that, because IA reports overwhelmingly result in officers being cleared, a complete and transparent record of the cases would help, rather than hinder, the reputation of the force.

“IA investigations almost always turn out to exonerate the officer – almost always,” he said.

Beggs also notes state law allows the names of officers to be redacted in records detailing unfounded complaints, and the new ordinance would allow people reporting complaints to ask that they not be posted. Overall, though, he sees the ordinance as a concrete step to build trust and accountability through transparency.

Changing that would provide a fuller public picture of how the department investigates itself, what the complaints are and how those complaints are handled by those who are investigating their fellow investigators.

Meidl makes the case that the differences between written summaries and full reports aren’t so huge. In an interview Tuesday, he said the current handling of IA reports, including the summaries, are produced with the input and oversight of the ombudsman. He noted that when the Department of Justice imposed a sweeping range of requirements on the Seattle Police Department, it recommended a summary system like Spokane’s.

But the McMurtrey case brings us back to the concrete, recent example. A city with a robust ability to evaluate the behavior of officers and the way a department responds to complaints would have known about that case. A true public accounting would have taken more specific account. The way the department handled the worst police demeanor that Meidl had seen in his career would be something the public would deserve to know.

And the summary system served to hide, not reveal, that behavior. After it came to light, following a public records request by frequent police critic Brian Breen, the department responded quickly with another investigation of its own.

Not into McMurtrey, though. Into the leak.

It was an excellent way to breed suspicion. Beggs’ ordinance could be a way to breed trust.