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

Justice Department refuses to release report on its examination of Spokane Police Department

U.S. Justice Department attorney Victor Boutros speaks to the media, standing in front of then-U.S. Attorney Mike Ormsby, Nov. 15, 2012 at the federal courthouse in Spokane. In the aftermath of the conviction of former police officer Karl Thompson, the city requested that the Department of Justice examine the department’s use-of-force and other policies. The police department moved forward on many of the recommendations made by federal officials. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

The U.S. Department of Justice has refused to release its report on the Spokane Police Department’s reforms after a public records request and appeal by The Spokesman-Review.

The report details how well Spokane police implemented 42 recommendations from the Justice Department’s collaborative reform process, a voluntary review the department undertook starting in 2012. The reform was focused on evaluating Spokane police policies and practices related to use of force.

Collaborative reforms were a program of the Justice Department’s Community Oriented Policing Services, known as COPS, which Attorney General Jeff Sessions ended after President Donald Trump took office.

Spokane police were to receive a final report in the summer of 2016, but after a long wait, the COPS program told Chief Craig Meidl in the fall of 2017 they wouldn’t be getting one.

Following that announcement, Meidl said he was disappointed the police wouldn’t receive a seal of approval from the Department of Justice. On Tuesday, he said the department has completed all 42 recommendations and a draft report outlining the changes it has made, which is currently awaiting review in the mayor’s office.

Meidl remained frustrated by the Justice Department’s decision, saying the community will trust the finished product more if it comes from outside the police department.

“There’s a certain segment of the community that will not get the levels of closure that they want without an outside seal of approval,” he said.

He said the Justice Department’s stance was especially disappointing because, as far as he knows, the report is completed and “sitting on someone’s desk.”

Mayor David Condon and City Council President Ben Stuckart echoed Meidl’s concerns at the time of the COPS announcement. Brian Coddington, the mayor’s spokesman, affirmed that Tuesday, but said the reform process still accomplished a lot.

“We had hoped there was going to be a final report, either a stamp of approval or a final bit of guidance, but the benefits were still there,” he said.

Coddington said Meidl’s draft report has been sent to the mayor’s office and should be released later this spring.

No one at the city of Spokane or within the police department has seen a copy of the Justice Department report.

Rick Eichstaedt, director of the Center for Justice, which has sued the police department several times over its use of force, said Meidl deserves credit for trying to wrap up the program as best he’s able. But he said the Justice Department’s refusal to release a report, even if it’s incomplete, is “ridiculous.”

“This was designed to be a community-based program to restore trust and build bridges in the community,” Eichstaedt said. “The city wants it. You want it. We wanted it. Elected officials want it. And it’s the very program that’s supposed to be helping to build these bridges that is actually being the divisive one.”

Stuckart said he was “disappointed” about the denial and thought city officials might be able to get a copy of the report through journalists’ requests for public records.

“I was kind of hoping the press’ requests would go through,” he said.

City Councilwoman Lori Kinnear, who chairs the city’s public safety and health committee, agreed.

“We rely on the DOJ for so many things, and the fact that they’re not doing that is disappointing. They’re the head agency, so why wouldn’t they do it?” she said.

The Spokesman-Review filed a request for the report with the Department of Justice on Nov. 22.

The Justice Department denied that request on Dec. 1, citing an exemption in the federal Freedom of Information Act protecting “deliberative” records that are part of an agency’s decision-making process, but not a final product, from release.

The Spokesman-Review filed an appeal the same day arguing the “draft” report has become a de facto final report because since the collaborative reform program has ended and should not be exempted from disclosure according to the Justice Department’s own guidelines.

That appeal was denied Monday by the Justice Department’s Office of Information Policy under the same section of the law, which exempts “inter-agency or intra-agency memorandums or letters which would not be available by law to a party other than an agency in litigation with the agency” from disclosure.

In its denial, the office wrote, “it is reasonably foreseeable that disclosure of this information would harm the interests protected by this provision.”