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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane City Council, mayor issue separate police reform proposals

Police in riot gear maintain an uneasy standoff with crowds of protesters on May 31 outside the Spokane County Courthouse during a protest to express anger over the  (JESSE TINSLEY)

In response to growing to public pressure and recent protests over police brutality, the Spokane City Council will consider a resolution calling for sweeping reforms to policing.

Simultaneously, Mayor Nadine Woodward has drafted a separate resolution that sets similar goals for the police department, but is less specific in proposed reforms to police policy. Both resolutions are nonbinding, but the council’s proposal would lay the groundwork for several changes to Spokane Police Department policy and civilian oversight of officer conduct. If codified, the council’s reforms would include:

  • A new city law to force officers to report when a colleague uses excessive force.
  • Limits on the execution of “no-knock” search warrants in which police enter a home without warning;
  • The elimination of a loophole that allows police to use disallowed tactics under “exceptional” circumstances.

The council’s resolution also calls for several measures that would expand public access to documents and recordings related to investigations of police misconduct. Neither resolution includes any proposal to defund the department or reduce police spending, but both endorse the formation of a collaborative working group that would “reimagine public safety using a community health lens of harm reduction” and publish a report with recommendations in 2021.

The mayor’s proposal is “broader in scope and looks at establishing joint expectations” for future contract negotiations with the Spokane Police Guild, according to city spokesman Brian Coddington. The City Council has delayed a vote on a proposed labor agreement that would run through 2020, with future bargaining to begin shortly after it’s approved. Coddington said the mayor’s resolution is more focused on items “that can just be done now without having to get into negotiation (with the police union), and steps that we can take immediately as a community moving forward.” It calls for “safe, equitable and effective policing the community expects and deserves.”

The mayor’s resolution was drafted with input from the police department and other stakeholders, including members of the City Council, according to Coddington. Both the City Council and administration expressed optimism the two branches of government could strike a compromise on several proposed reforms.

The council’s proposal could be taken up for a vote as early as Monday, but Council President Breean Beggs stressed during an informal study session on Thursday that it is only a first step in what will be a thorough public process. “This is not baked, at all. It’s awaiting public comment, it’s awaiting comment from police leadership,” Beggs said.

Specific reforms would be enacted by council through ordinances or amendments to city charter.

Use of force

Following George Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis – which occurred on May 25 after officer Derek Chauvin knelt on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes – Spokane police declared using a knee to the neck of a prone suspect is now an exceptional technique, meaning it would require greater justification by the officer who uses it. But under the proposed resolution, the City Council would look to eliminate “exceptional techniques” as a category entirely, effectively banning the knee-to-neck tactic unless deadly use of force is justified.

That change received Police Ombudsman Bart Logue’s backing on Thursday, although it is not a part of Woodward’s proposal. He said the category of exceptional technique essentially creates a “free-for-all.”

“Instead of the policy directing what’s acceptable, the action of the officer kind of dictates what the policy accepts,” Logue told the City Council. The change also would effectively ban the use of a chokehold or deployment of a police dog to bite someone, unless justified as a use of deadly force. The proposal follows the controversial arrest of a city man with the use of a police dog last year.

Those tactics are not specifically addressed in Woodward’s resolution, which does call for continued improvement of the department’s use of force policy, as well as de-escalation and crisis intervention training. The council’s resolution calls for the department to more effectively implement the “duty to intervene,” which requires an office to attempt to step in verbally or physically when a fellow officer is using unauthorized force. If the officer fails to attempt to intervene, he or she could be held liable for the others’ actions.

A new law would codify existing policy that forces the officer witnessing misconduct to report it afterward. Woodward’s resolution supports the policy, but does not propose making it city law. For a law enforcement officer facing legal action, the city council proposes the city would only pay for legal representation if he or she waives qualified immunity as a defense. Qualified immunity – a legal doctrine that protects officers from personal liability in litigation so long as they did not violate “clearly established” legal precedent – has come under further scrutiny during recent protests over police brutality. Woodward’s proposal does not address qualified immunity.

Civilian oversight

Several proposed changes would increase public access to internal police materials. The council may look to require the publication of all internal affairs investigations on the city’s website, with officer names redacted. Audio from meetings of the Use of Force Review Board and Deadly Force Review Board, both of which are comprised by police administrators, would also be posted to the city website. Woodward’s draft pledges to “work with the Office of Police Ombudsman to review Internal Affairs case summaries prior to posting to the City’s website.”

The council resolution would also look to force the city to release body camera footage within 45 days of a public records request unless it is part of an active criminal investigation. Woodward’s draft proposes footage be released “as soon as possible.” In compliance with a charter amendment passed by voters last year, the city would negotiate with the Spokane Police Guild and all other unions in public view under both proposals. The police guild’s contract currently includes matters of civilian oversight, but advocates for police reform have long held that its language prevents the ombudsman from independently investigating complaints against police and publishing reports following an Internal Affairs investigation – both powers granted to the ombudsman by city law approved by 70% of voters in 2013. The resolution would look to force the guild contract into compliance with the city charter. Woodward’s draft shares this goal, but uses different language.

Future reform

The proposed reform work group could include representatives from the Office of the Police Ombudsman, the Human Rights Commission, the Spokane Police Department and outside experts. The group would be tasked with presenting a list of recommendations to the council in June 2021. Each draft resolution contains a call for the department to increase the diversity of its officers. The council’s version sets a goal to have the department’s own demographics match that of the city by 2024.

Another point in both resolutions calls for diversity on the Office of Police Ombudsman Commission, which oversees the ombudsman in charged with providing civilian oversight of the police department. Both resolutions propose hiring six additional behavioral health specialists who are paired with police officers, but the council’s resolution asks the city to consider decriminalizing “types of conduct which are more effectively addressed with behavioral and mental health interventions.” The council could also look to limit the use of armored vehicles and crowd control weapons during protests.

The proposal follows the civil unrest that occurred after protests on May 31, when the looting of a Nike store prompted officers to use foam bullets and tear gas to disperse protesters from downtown. The department would also “no longer purchase or accept military-grade weapons and hardware.” Woodward’s resolution calls for continued support of community- focused police programs, such as the Police Activities League and Youth Police Initiative.