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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: The chill between cops and watchdog deepens, as controversial case approaches public release

Shawn Vestal (Dan Pelle / DAN PELLE)
Shawn Vestal (Dan Pelle / DAN PELLE)

Back in those halcyon days of 2018, when Spokane’s ombudsman and its police chief were getting along a bit better, they set off on an important project to change police department policies on when and how officers can use force.

Now nearly complete, the new policy requires, at least on paper, that officers make significant efforts to avoid using force before turning to that as a final step. It adds language emphasizing the need to avoid using deadly force if possible, and adds specifics about steps to take to “de-escalate” conflicts.

Broadly speaking, it’s a positive development for policing for Spokane.

“It’s a gigantic step forward,” said Ombudsman Bart Logue. “Time will tell whether or not it has an effect.”

Chief Craig Meidl, who was the primary driver of the changes, agrees. “I think this is one of the most important pieces of work we’ll probably ever do,” he said.

It’s a rare point of agreement between Logue and Meidl these days. Their relationship and the relationship between their offices – always bound to have some inherent tension – has devolved into a chilly estrangement, growing partly from criticisms Logue has made of the chief and department in a still-secret case in which an officer reportedly heaved a police dog into a car with a suspect.

No internal affairs investigation into the incident was opened, and Logue did not learn of the case until it was leaked and became public. Some people who have seen police video of the incident believe it has the potential to be an Otto Zehm-level catastrophe for truth and justice in Spokane. The results of the IA investigation should be public in the coming weeks. Whatever the full picture shows, we are on the threshold of another moment where police oversight and accountability will be back on the front burner, flame on high.

That’s why the bitter chill between the overseer and the overseen is, broadly speaking, a negative development for policing in Spokane. There’s been conflict between the department and the ombudsman for months now, involving limits on the ombudsman’s access to records and efforts by the Spokane Police Guild to block his involvement in the aforementioned case. But we need everyone involved to be committed to the central principles of oversight and accountability.

Tensions broke through again this week with Logue’s stinging criticism of one change that was added to the policy relatively recently – and the chief’s criticism of Logue’s criticism.

Logue called out one section of the policy in a letter to Meidl that became public this week. His concerns seem utterly legitimate: The change would eliminate the requirement that police supervisors initiate an internal affairs investigation – and ombudsman involvement – in cases where there is an allegation or concern about a use-of-force violation. The new section requires only that the supervisor should complete a report through the chain of command, and forward it to IA – and the ombudsman – after it’s complete.

It shifts some investigatory action back into the chain of command and away from IA and the ombudsman, in other words.

Surprisingly, perhaps, Meidl seems to agree there are problems with the change. He says his intention in making the change was to prevent relatively minor complaints – such as an officer failing to turn on his body camera in a timely manner – from requiring a full internal-affairs investigation. (Logue agrees that such a complaint needn’t result in a full IA probe, for his part.)

“When I saw how Bart interpreted it, I thought, I can totally understand why Bart interpreted it that way,” Meidl said. “It is a good point, and that’s why I’m going to revisit that language” in the policy.

Meidl’s beef is that Logue didn’t approach him earlier to raise the concern, rather than issuing a public rebuke. Meidl said he first sent the final version of the policy – after months of back and forth between them – to Logue in early September.

“He had five weeks to call me and say I’m concerned about this,” he said.

By going public with it instead, Meidl said, it reinforced the sense he has that the ombudsman has grandstanded and created drama and made public statements suggesting he isn’t cooperating with the oversight system.

Logue said he didn’t notice that change until later because it was only added to the policy after his earlier review of the full policy. When he came across it recently, he said he felt bound to raise concerns about it. He faults Meidl – as Meidl faults him – for not reaching out to communicate about the matter in person before making the change.

One of Logue’s points deserves special attention: He said that the change would remove the requirement for an IA investigation into a case like the aforementioned police-dog case – as if the department was caught not following the rules in that case, and then revised the rules it didn’t follow.

“We had never discussed a change to that section of the policy” in all the time they’d been going over it, Logue said.

It may not matter much whether Meidl and Logue are buddies – there is an inherent, productive tension in the relationship between their offices. Logue’s job is to double-check and question and interrogate and raise concerns and cry foul, which the city absolutely needs him to do, and which is bound to create conflict.

It matters that he does so in the most productive way possible – but it matters most that he does it, period. It’s not a bad thing if criticisms are made publicly.

In the six years since Prop 1 passed and after the burst of reform efforts emerged with the support of seemingly every public figure in sight, it’s again a challenging time for citizen oversight of the police in Spokane. Back then, everyone from the mayor to new police chiefs had the luxury of being outspoken about other people’s mistakes; now they own whatever problems crop up, and it’s a lot tougher to stand on the difficult side of accountability.

The new policy has a lot going for it, but it would be alarming indeed if it adds a layer of self-dealing and secrecy to the investigation of complaints. Hopefully everyone involved can agree about that.

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