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Thursday, September 19, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Crime/Public Safety

In wake of Ennis trial, city leaders say progress within police department is ongoing

Spokane Police Chief Craig Meidl, left, listens as Mayor David Condon talks about the things the city is doing to make the Police Department more welcoming to women and minorities Friday, Mar. 9, 2018 at City Hall. Following the conviction of officer Gordon Ennis on sexual assault charges, the two talked about a recent culture audit of the department and how to prevent such incidents from happening again. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Spokane Police Chief Craig Meidl, left, listens as Mayor David Condon talks about the things the city is doing to make the Police Department more welcoming to women and minorities Friday, Mar. 9, 2018 at City Hall. Following the conviction of officer Gordon Ennis on sexual assault charges, the two talked about a recent culture audit of the department and how to prevent such incidents from happening again. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

Two days after a jury convicted a former police officer of rape, city leaders said there’s work to be done to reform the department.

“We’re not a perfect organization,” said Police Chief Craig Meidl in an interview Friday. “We have room for improvement.”

Gordon Ennis faces up to 8 1/2 years in prison and registration as sex offender after the jury convicted him of second-degree rape on Wednesday. He is expected to appeal his conviction.

Among some community organizations, the case raised concerns of a protective, fraternity-like atmosphere within the department. Officer Doug Strosahl, who owns the Colbert home where the rape occurred, didn’t report the crime to authorities. Former Police Guild President John Gately was accused of tipping Ennis off about the forthcoming investigation. He was tried, but a jury deadlocked and the charge was later dropped. A subsequent internal investigation found that he had violated departmental policies, and he was suspended for a month without pay.

Earlier this year that suspension was reduced to one week after Gately appealed.

While he said he couldn’t comment on the case directly since it’s likely to be appealed, Meidl disagreed with the broader criticism directed toward the department, adding that he remains confident officers would support the female officer.

“I think it’s important for people to understand that I cannot think of one officer on the department who would look at the statements that came out during trial that led to the conviction and not have any issue with that,” he said. “Every officer would, better be, absolutely disgusted.”

In late 2016, the city and mayor settled an ethics complaint with the Spokane chapter of the National Organization for Women, which among other things led to the creation of a task force that focused on employment issues at City Hall, including sexual harassment and pay inequality.

Autumn Reed, president of Spokane NOW and who was present this week during the Ennis trial, said she would like to see a similar initiative with the police department.

“It’s a fraternity,” she said. “It’s a very male-dominated field. There is no glass ceiling. It’s a plexiglass ceiling. Every time you try to get your head up there, you bounce off of it.”

Liz Moore, the director of the Peace and Justice Action League, followed the case against Ennis, and while she applauded Meidl and others who supported the victim before, during and after the trial, she said there were too many signs of a “toxic misogynistic culture.”

The victim testified during the trial that she was ostracized by some in the department, and felt targeted by male colleagues simply because she reported a crime.

“I walk into the room and people glare at me,” the victim said at the time. “Very quickly it was evident that people I thought who had my best interest didn’t.”

Moore said that experience “is another example of this ‘old boys club.’ ”

“Isolating victims is one of the ways that toxicity shows,” she said.

The Spokane Police Department, according to a recent head count, has 30 female officer compared to 292 male officers.

Moore questioned whether the actions of Ennis, Strosahl and Gately reflected a deeper culture within the department.

“The fact that there were so many individuals who behaved incorrectly says to me that it is an institutional issue,” she said. “Something the institution has to take responsibility for.”

In May 2017, researchers at Gonzaga University prepared a 94-page audit on the culture of the Spokane Police Department. An audit examining the culture of the Spokane Police Department was called for by the Use of Force Commission, a temporary board created to recommend reform after a Police Officer Karl Thompson was sentenced to federal prison in 2011 for using excessive force.

The audit was completed, but had little if no language on the reported sexism and shunning behavior Ennis’ victim testified to experiencing. Instead, it focused heavily on officer’s pay, and criticized what it described as a shortage of patrol staff to cover the city.

Spokane Mayor David Condon said that the Justice Department’s recommendations to the department back in 2014 on improving training, policies and community engagement, together with the Gonzaga audit, coalesced into a comprehensive blueprint for reform moving forward.

“I think this is what women grapple with,” Condon said of reporting harassment, or in the case of Ennis, sexual assault. “As we work as a large organization, what are these different avenues? We’ve opened these avenues in a way we haven’t done in the past. I think people see that action is being taken.”

Condon, who tapped Meidl to lead the police department in late 2016, said that under Meidl’s leadership he’s seen a significant improvement from where the police department was when he was elected mayor back in 2011.

“I really do a see a culture of transparency,” he said. “I see the leadership of Craig (Meidl) really holding his department accountable, holding himself accountable, and not only to the civilian leadership of the city, but also to the public.”

Councilwoman Lori Kinnear, chair of the City Council’s Public Safety and Community Health Committee, praised the work the department has been doing following the audit, but also wondered if the situation surrounding Ennis was a series of “people making poor decisions.”

“I think that could happen whether it’s the police department, or other departments, or any other city department,” she said. “When you have people working closely together, and they’re going to parties together, you could have a set up of situations unintentionally.”

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