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Shawn Vestal: Culture underlies problems with policing and accountability, and the solutions have to come from outside

Protesters and police clashed in downtown Spokane during riots after the George Floyd protest on May 31, 2020.  (Libby Kamrowski/Spokesman- / Review)
Protesters and police clashed in downtown Spokane during riots after the George Floyd protest on May 31, 2020. (Libby Kamrowski/Spokesman- / Review)

Midway into a new ombudsman’s report on the now-infamous profanity-laced rant of a still employed Spokane police officer, a word appears that is crucial in considering where we’ve been, where we are and where we are going with police and accountability.


In his report, Ombudsman Bart Logue recommends that the department “re-evaluate its culture of accountability” in the supervisory ranks, which he critiques for not following policy in reviewing the case, failing initially to open an internal affairs investigation (which kept the incident hidden from the ombudsman), failing to consider facts in dispute surrounding the incident, not performing a review of the tactics used, and several other areas.

There is much to deplore in the February 2019 incident in which Officer Dan Lesser screamed repeated death threats at a suspect before sending a K-9 into a vehicle to attack a surrendering suspect, and Logue’s report details it methodically. But it is his critique of the breakdown in accountability that suggests a more intractable problem – and it’s one that has resonated over years of accountability battles in Spokane.

Those years – the post-Otto Zehm years – have been marked by major efforts at reform in the SPD, made at the insistence of citizens. New training. The adoption of body cameras. The creation of teams with social workers to help deal with problems our society should never have left to the police in the first place. New statistical measures meant to track use of force, bias and overall police reports. Logue’s office itself. Lots and lots of good stuff.

And yet, the culture problem that Logue identifies – one in which department leadership seemed poised to hush up the Lesser incident, then slow-walked its release for months while complaining that it had leaked, then tapped the offending officer on the wrist gently – is stronger than all of that.

Culture is stronger than training. It’s stronger than policy and rhetoric. It’s stronger than leadership. It’s stronger than public displays of virtue, more powerful than lip service and line-dancing in the park. Inside our stubborn, systemic national crisis of race and policing lie deep patterns of culture, against which reforms may simply crash and fall away.

And the particular problem with the culture of police accountability in Spokane leadership, from the top of the police department to the mayor’s office and beyond into county law enforcement, is that it is now self-satisfied, complacent and defensive, filled with a sense of accomplishment and a clearly expressed fatigue with anyone who questions that record.

We’re different, the message goes. Look at all we’ve done.

We’re better now.

That’s the message that emerged most recently in the face of new statistical analysis that shows Spokane cops arrest Black people at a rate five times higher than whites. A city spokesman dismissed critics of this problem as “the usual suspects” – implying that when it comes to police performance, these are just the same old crying nags who can be safely ignored.

Astonishingly, Mayor Nadine Woodward has now proposed a contract that would grant the Police Guild an even greater degree of authority over the ombudsman’s office. Woodward ran with the support of the Guild and made clear that she would consider weakening the ombudsman’s authority on its behalf, and yet the contract she has proposed is still a stunning affront to the principle of independent civilian oversight that is called for in our city charter. It’s a vision of foxes guarding the hen house.

The City Council put off a vote on that bad contract this week.

It should put off a vote until the contract is right.

Logue’s report was not the first call-out of police culture in Spokane. In 2012, the mayor’s Use of Force Commission identified cultural problems in the department.

It said, “The Commission believes that the SPD’s culture needs to be improved when it comes to issues of professionalism, transparency, public mindedness, and generosity of service, especially towards community members from marginalized populations.”

It recommended the city conduct a culture audit and try to come to grips with these problems. However, amid all the reform efforts that followed, the question of culture was all but completely ignored.

The city made no attempt to probe the attitudes, beliefs, conventions and habits that produced the shameful aftermath of the Zehm case, a widespread cover-up, a courtroom salute of the man who beat Zehm mercilessly and needlessly, and the frankly astonishing sense of self-pity that many cops expressed afterward.

Our current chief has spoken publicly about the salute and his participation in it, apologized for it and took a measure of responsibility. But the culture that produced that response did not evaporate after a few training sessions. That culture is still alive in the department and in its attitudes toward using force, toward accountability, toward justice. It is still alive in the idea that the public does not deserve what it has demanded and that police officers should determine how they will be held accountable.

When the current ombudsman system was created, the city failed to achieve what voters wanted – truly independent investigations of police misconduct, which 70% of us voted for in 2013. The Police Guild resisted true oversight, and in the face of its determined resistance, the Condon administration and City Council settled for a half-measure and constrained the ombudsman’s authority right out of the gate.

This retreat – which was hailed as good enough at the time by many, including me – has haunted oversight efforts since. Logue has characterized the Condon administration’s eventual approach toward the office as “openly hostile.” The office of the ombudsman complained that police Chief Craig Meidl showed a pattern of “continuous interference” with its efforts to gain access to reports and video.

The Guild, displaying the maximum chutzpah that poisons the culture, attempted to have Logue fired. Meidl later revised the department’s policies in ways that delay when SPD notifies the ombudsman of a complaint regarding the use of force.

And now, the mayor wants to give police even more control of the process.

We are at a critical moment, locally and nationally. There will be legislation, policy changes, reforms of policing all over the place, and many such proposals will be good, worthy, important steps. Council President Breean Beggs has proposed a list of 17 excellent reforms to improve policing and accountability in Spokane. Perhaps those who want to see an even deeper, more wholesale rethinking of police – a defunding of the police, in some frame – will be successful.

I presume, though, that we will continue to live with the current power structure and obstacles to change, at least for a while, and that structure gives the cultural prerogatives of the police more power than the people they are supposed to serve.

Our ability to effect change cannot depend upon that culture.

I think there are three broad areas in which we could begin to shift the balance of authority toward citizens, to make space for the specific, concrete changes citizens want to see. Over the next week I plan to write about each of them. These ideas are far from unique to me; but they arise from my own years of watching our police-reform efforts, talking to people about them and researching them, and noting where it seems the biggest obstacles lie.

They are as follows:

  • Strip authority from the police union.
  • Grant true independence to Spokane’s ombudsman.
  • Create serious consequences for police misconduct, and not only in the cases where a killing is captured on video.

We need to re-evaluate our culture of accountability.

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