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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Community leaders respond to domestic violence allegations against Spokane activist Phil Tyler

Former Spokane NAACP president Phil Tyler, seen July 2016, faces scrutiny for domestic-violence allegations that stretch back more than three decades. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

Phillip Tyler, the prominent community activist who once led the Spokane chapter of the NAACP, is facing scrutiny for domestic violence allegations by multiple women that stretch back more than three decades.

Though he did not respond to messages seeking comment Thursday, in a nearly 10-minute Facebook video Thursday afternoon he continued to deny that he ever physically abused women. He did, however, acknowledge certain incidents, including a domestic dispute that prompted a neighbor to call the police and a brawl at a bar at Fairchild Air Force Base that resulted in a black mark on his military record. He called it a “silly altercation” that “was the result of defending my ex-wife from a groping incident.”

Tyler also apologized for any behavior that might have been “construed as a verbal abuse.”

“I am sorry for that,” he said in the video. “I cannot go back and change the behavior 20 and 30 years in my past, but I can acknowledge and apologize for my verbal abusive behavior, move forward and do better.”

The claims, along with on-the-record interviews with two of Tyler’s three ex-wives, were detailed in a Thursday story by the Inlander. The story also was based on police reports, court records from Tyler’s divorce proceedings and interviews with friends of Tyler’s ex-wives who said they had witnessed his abusive behavior.

Tyler, who was said to be considering another run for Spokane City Council, asserted that the Inlander story was part of a political smear campaign.

“This began with false allegations of sexual harassment during my employment with the county,” he said. “This began with the creation of false Facebook and Plenty of Fish accounts. This began with complaints, from those I believed to be friends, regarding my relationship with our congresswoman.”

Tyler’s current wife, Meg Demand, also appeared in the video Thursday and said there was more to her husband’s story.

“To be clear, I have known about each one of these women and these unhealthy relationships. I knew about how he left each relationship to better himself and remove the toxic nature of these circumstances,” Demand said. “We aren’t saying this is all made up. I will not call another woman a liar, and each of us have our own story. What I am concerned about is the narrative of trying this in the court of public opinion, with only partial facts.”

Demand also claimed she had been harassed by Tyler’s third wife, Katrina Tyler, including in phone calls and text messages.

“Her texts were about a desire to damage our relationship,” Demand said. “None – and I repeat, none – contained a concern for my safety or any fear on her part.”

In 2016, The Spokesman-Review profiled Tyler as part of the paper’s “Difference Makers” series, highlighting his efforts to rebuild the local NAACP chapter after former President Rachel Dolezal was outed as a white woman. Since stepping down from that post last year, Tyler, now 50, has remained in the public eye and devoted energy to various causes.

When his son killed himself in November, Tyler vowed in an emotional video to advocate for suicide prevention. Around the same time, he recruited Spokane’s mayor, police chief, fire chief and sheriff to join him in a video titled “We Will Rise,” calling on men to take a stand against sexual harassment and assault. And last week, he joined U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers on a “pilgrimage” to the South in observance of Black History Month.

The allegations against Tyler prompted swift denunciations from other local leaders.

“Someone who has been elevated as a Spokane leader betrayed our trust and the trust of women in our community. I believe the women,” Councilwoman Kate Burke, who recently joined Tyler in a panel discussion on sexual assault, said in a statement.

“But this isn’t about one person, this is about a system,” Burke said. “From our wastewater treatment plant to our police force to the highest levels of city government, there are major issues with abuse and perpetuating the cycle of abuse, harassment and enabling. What women need is the ability to thrive and achieve without being preyed upon and supportive folks around us when it happens.”

The Spokane chapter of the National Organization for Women also issued a searing statement, saying Tyler’s alleged behavior is “deeply concerning, brutal and toxic.” NOW also accused him of victim-blaming and “gaslighting” – the practice of manipulating domestic violence victims into questioning their own experiences.

“This is not a three-decades-long campaign to destroy one man’s success. This is a three-decades-long timeline of one man’s documented aggression, control, violence and persistent abuse,” NOW said. “Mr. Tyler, we call on you to take accountability for your actions. There is room for redemption but you must take the first step.”

NOW called on all the men who appeared with Tyler in the “We Will Rise” video – Mayor David Condon, police Chief Craig Meidl, Fire Chief Brian Schaeffer and Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich – to address the allegations.

Later Thursday, Condon, Meidl and Schaeffer said in a joint statement: “As local leaders we support giving victims a voice. It is our jobs and responsibilities to make sure we provide a safe place in our neighborhoods, communities, places of work, and other places we congregate for victims to speak up and advocates to speak out.”

Asked for comment about Tyler, Jared Powell, a spokesman for McMorris Rodgers, said in an email: “These are very serious allegations. Domestic violence is never acceptable. All of the congresswoman’s interactions with Phil Tyler have been positive and constructive.”

The current president of the Spokane NAACP, Kurtis Robinson, offered a written statement on behalf of the organization. It said that in the current environment, women are finally “standing up and finding their voices against the wrong that they have experienced.”

“At the same time, we believe in due process, and feel that we are not in the position to judge the allegations against Mr. Tyler,” the statement said. “We are grateful to Mr. Tyler for the work he did during his term as president of the Spokane NAACP. However, he is not currently involved in our work, so we cannot and will not let these allegations distract us from the progress this organization has made and the important work that we are currently doing to ensure social justice for all members of the Spokane community.”

Before Thursday, some of Tyler’s run-ins with law enforcement had been publicly reported. The Spokesman-Review reported in February 2016, while Tyler was vying for a seat on the Spokane City Council, that he had been accused of damaging an ex-girlfriend’s apartment in 1992 and that one of his ex-wives had requested a domestic violence protection order against him in 1998.

Some of the most serious allegations, from divorce filings and juvenile court records, were unreported, and none of his romantic partners had spoken out publicly.

Over the years, Tyler, an Air Force veteran and former Spokane County Jail corrections officer, has been accused of hitting women and dragging them by their hair. As a juvenile in 1985, he was found guilty of assault for slamming another teenager into a wall.

Deanna Harvey, who was a friend of Tyler’s first wife, Chloe Senger, told the Inlander that Tyler slammed her head into a wall so hard it broke the plaster, exposing the wood behind it, and knocked a crown off her tooth. According to the Inlander, Tyler claimed he had no memory of the incident involving Harvey, despite the assault conviction.

In another example from 1991, Tyler’s second wife, Darci Tyler, claimed he put his foot on her stomach and threatened to “give her an abortion the old-fashioned way.” She later had a miscarriage, according to a court document.

Tyler denied this account, too, and dismissed other allegations by his former wife Katrina Tyler, whom he called a “bitter alcoholic,” according to the Inlander.

In a phone call, Knezovich said he was stunned by the scope and severity of the allegations against Tyler, who became a corrections officer in 1999, before Knezovich became sheriff. Knezovich said that under his hiring process, Tyler’s past would disqualify him from a job in law enforcement.

“And for the life of me, I can’t explain how this history got missed,” Knezovich said. “It’s all in records.”