A civilian panel tasked with overseeing investigations into Spokane police conduct ordered a further investigation Tuesday into a citizen complaint stemming from a downtown protest this summer.
The further review into allegations of unprofessional conduct was requested by Spokane Police Ombudsman Bart Logue, and is the first time such an additional probe has been authorized by the civilian panel since its inception in 2013.
“We’ve had a lot of success resolving issues,” Logue said. “But the reason I am here is to make sure that if I think there is an issue, I have to be strong enough to stand up and say I think there’s an issue, and take whatever pushback comes from that.”
Logue disagreed with Spokane police Chief Craig Meidl’s decision to treat the complaint about an officer’s demeanor as a category not worthy of additional investigation, though Logue said he didn’t have enough information to determine if the complaint was well-founded. A man who had been protesting outside a summer campaign event for U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers alleges he was told by a plainclothes officer that if he damaged the officer’s vehicle, he would be arrested.
The man also said that two other officers on the scene, both in uniform, told him the remark from their colleague wasn’t a threat but a promise.
After an initial refusal by Logue to certify the results of an Internal Affairs investigation, which initially ended with the determination the officer couldn’t be identified, a follow-up inquiry was made via email. The officer, who wasn’t named during the hearing, said the protester had been leaning against the vehicle and would impede his duty to secure the area should protests become dangerous, according to testimony Tuesday night.
Spokane police Assistant Chief Justin Lundgren defended the chief’s decision not to push the investigation further than the follow-up email, noting damage to a police vehicle is a felony and would likely result in arrest.
“As Mr. Logue said, it wasn’t a perfect interaction,” Lundgren told Logue and members of the Spokane Police Ombudsman Commission. “There were things that could have been done differently. However, he said that even if we disregarded what the officer said and only considered what the complainant said, it wouldn’t be something I would define as misconduct.”
Logue’s role, as defined under city ordinance and collective bargaining agreement with the Spokane Police Guild, is limited to reviewing Internal Affairs investigations and determining their completeness and timeliness. The ombudsman may not become involved in the discipline of officers under city law. The position was created in 2008 in part following the controversial death of Otto Zehm, and its tasks and authority have been altered in the years since by a vote of the public and changes by the Spokane City Council.
Privacy protections in the law also kept Logue and ombudsman commissioners from naming the man who made the complaint as well as the officer who was its target. But commissioners were swayed by Logue’s argument that “gaps” remained in the investigation of the incident and what prompted the verbal exchange between the officer and the protester.
“If we let this one slide, then we might let the next one slide as well, and it might be far more serious than this one,” said Ladd Smith, chairman of the commission.
His colleague, Elizabeth Kelley, agreed.
“I worry about the precedent in this particular case,” she said. “Because, as has been said before, this is an easy case. And although perhaps in the minds of other people, it’s not a serious case, in the mind of the citizen, it’s a serious case.”
Commissioner James Wilburn said a further investigation would provide clarity into the source of the complaint, as well as conflicting accounts about what led to the officer making the declaration.
“I need more information as to why this citizen was so upset he had to file this complaint,” Wilburn said.
A fourth commissioner, Jenny Rose, was absent from the meeting. The fifth commission seat is vacant.
The panel’s vote means the case will return to Internal Affairs for further review. If the commission finds those results inadequate, city law allows for a third-party investigation into the claims, with discipline authority resting in the hands of the police chief.