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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
News >  Spokane

DOJ report on Spokane Police reform shows improvement

It’s been six years since Spokane officials asked the Department of Justice to help change its police force for the better. Now the city has plenty to brag about.

Use of force is down. So are complaints from citizens. And confidence in police is the highest in years. More officers are interacting with the community in new ways, and all patrol officers wear body cameras.

“I’m excited we’re at this stage,” Mayor David Condon said. “It’s years in the making.”

The final results of that yearslong reform were released to the public Tuesday – a year after the federal agency said it wouldn’t send a final grade as part of Trump-era cutbacks to collaborative reform.

The 88-page document, mostly written by police program manager Kathy Armstrong, details all of the ways the city has met, and in some cases exceeded, a list of 42 Department of Justice recommendations.

“Am I happy where we’re at? One hundred percent,” said Spokane police Chief Craig Meidl, who was appointed by Condon in 2016. “Do I think we can rest on our laurels? Absolutely not.”

Notable highlights of the city’s report included a 26 percent reduction in use-of-force incidents from 2013 to 2017, despite increased reporting, and a recent survey that found 87 percent of survey takers agreed with the statement the “Spokane Police Department is successfully working to improve its relationship with Spokane residents.” In 2015, only 56 percent agreed.

Several community leaders also were quoted in the report in support of the reform efforts. Kurtis Robinson, president of the Spokane NAACP, said there’s been a “definitive improvement on multiple fronts, with community engagement, community partner interactions, engagement with our youth, and overall general public interactions.

“Yet also, there is still quite a long ways to go in those areas, as well as in response times to property crimes, impressions of profiling the homeless, the poor, persons of color, etc.,” he wrote. “And then there are the obvious disparity of dynamics in contacts and stops.”

City Councilman Breean Beggs, who represented the estate of Otto Zehm, a developmentally disabled janitor who was beaten and hogtied by Spokane police in 2006 and later died of complications from suffocation, said he was impressed overall with the changes the department has made.

In a phone interview Tuesday, he said he was impressed in the reduction in use of force, and the strides the department made in community engagement. The most significant improvement he saw, though, was the department’s leadership and the majority of officers admitting work needed to be done in the first place.

“That was the essence of the struggle in Zehm,” he said. “That’s why we ended up filing a lawsuit. For several years, the police department didn’t want to admit they had a problem.”

He said there was still room for improvement in areas, especially in police interactions with people of color in the community.

As part of the report, the department also overhauled its policy on implicit bias training – something that wasn’t recommended by the Department of Justice but was part of the President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing created in 2014 by the Obama Administration in response to the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.

With classes led by Officer Winston Brooks, all officers completed the training in 2017. In the past five years, the department has seen a 68 percent decrease in complaints against officers.

The department led the state in the breadth of crisis intervention and mental health training officers receive, according to the report. Every officer is already required to complete 40 hours of training, including procedural justice training.

“What is very good to see is a progress report on the efforts we have made,” Condon said. “Of course, it’s never a final issue, but it informs the future. And I think that’s what collaborative reform process is. It’s just that. It’s process.”

One of the biggest changes in the reform operation was the upgrade in police technology. In 2015, the Spokane Police Department became one of the first major law enforcement entities in the state to issue body cameras to all of its patrol officers. And soon, officers will use drones as part of their investigations after the City Council approved a new ordinance this week.

Condon said in the years that follow, he hoped the department would continue to innovate and push for better practices. But he said the next major hurdle in the pipeline is something that’s been plaguing the Spokane community for years: property crime.

Washington has one of the highest property crime rates in the nation, according to recent FBI statistics, and Spokane County is one of the highest in the state. Lawmakers point to a lack of supervision for property crime offenders after they’re released from prison – the only state in the nation that doesn’t.

Meidl and Condon want to change that. For the past several years, they’ve propositioned state officials to allow Spokane County to be the epicenter of a two-year pilot program for supervised releases.

“We want to see if this works,” Condon said. “It’s not only holding the offenders accountable, but it’s connecting them with the resources necessary to reduce recidivism.”

Meidl said the original need for reform was a “symptom of a broken relationship” between police and the people of Spokane.

In no other area was that more apparent than in a culture audit conducted by Gonzaga University, wherein several officers expressed concerns that the community didn’t understand the hazards of the job, and that reform efforts were rudderless and lacked direction.

But that was then, Meidl said.

“I wake up every single day thinking, ‘OK, what do I need to do to keep progressing?’ ” he said. “We have to continually evolve as an organization.”

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