The chief watchdog of the Spokane Police Department raised a red flag on Tuesday about what he said is an “alarming,” crucial and unannounced change to how incidents involving the use of force are referred to Internal Affairs investigators.
The police department’s previous policy required supervisors to enter any allegation or concern about a possible use of force violation as an Internal Affairs complaint, triggering an investigation with oversight from the Spokane Police Ombudsman’s Office.
The new policy that went into effect Oct. 4 says the supervisor should complete a use of force report to be forwarded to Internal Affairs and up the police chain of command. Only egregious violations would require notification of a police captain, and the ombudsman would not be briefed until after a command decision.
“Removing the requirement that a supervisor initiate an Internal Affairs Complaint when they think a violation may have occurred is ill advised. Allegations of violations should always be thoroughly documented and investigated without undue command influence,” Police Ombudsman Bart Logue wrote in a recommendation letter unanimously approved by the Ombudsman Commission on Tuesday.
Police Chief Craig Meidl said the police handbook still requires all misconduct to be reported in “overarching umbrella requirements.” The requirement to open an Internal Affairs investigation after a complaint is filed is still there but is not spelled out as clearly in the use of force section, he said.
“There still will be an IA file just not necessarily as quickly,” Meidl said. “Once the complaint is filed he [Logue] has the authority to sit in on any and all investigations.”
Logue said he had already been stressing the need for impartial investigations of uses of force under the old policy for months. But the policy update appears to remove requirements for a complete Internal Affairs investigation and civilian oversight, “exacerbating my concerns on interviews taking place off the record, improper investigations, and special treatment,” he wrote in the recommendation letter.
Logue said his concerns about impartiality peaked in May, but he declined to elaborate on the timing due to a pending investigation.
In an email that month he urged top police officials to investigate a use of force incident involving a police dog that was hoisted into the cab of a truck to subdue a suspect, who required stitches for a bite.
Logue’s letter recommending the re-implementation of the previous requirement for use of force referrals was sent to police command staff Wednesday. He had not discussed his concerns about the policy change with department officials before that, he said.
Meidl said he had not seen the letter Wednesday afternoon. He said he was “disappointed” Logue had not provided this feedback when a final draft of the new use of force policy was sent to the ombudsman’s office on Sept. 6 with a note that it would be made public shortly after.
Logue said the change was not brought to his attention by police administrators when he received drafts of the policy. He said he only noticed it upon re-familiarizing himself with the use of force policy for a recent Spokesman-Review story on the de-escalation update. In that article, Logue applauded recent updates to department de-escalation policy.
Meidl said he will review Logue’s recommendation later when he receives it.
Ombudsman Commission Chair Jenny Rose said she was disappointed the police department did not discuss the critical change during thorough conversations about de-escalation policy.
“It’s a regressive change,” Rose said. “The old policy was strong.”
Police administrators are not required to act on Logue’s recommendation, but Rose said she hopes it will lead to a dialogue about why the change was made and how the policy can be amended.
“When a supervisor feels there may have been a policy violation, that case should be thoroughly and objectively investigated,” Logue wrote in the letter. “This deviation from previous practice is alarming, and is an affront to community accountability.”
Reporter Emma Epperly contributed to this story.
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