The city’s civilian police watchdog told elected officials last week that his office made little progress in overcoming barriers to independent oversight of the department in 2019.
It was a year of mixed results for Ombudsman Bart Logue, who presented the Spokane City Council with his annual report for 2019 on Oct. 5. He continued calls to increase the independence of the ombudsman’s office and outlined recommended changes to police department policy, including more broadly documenting the use of force by police officers.
“We continued to experience some obstacles in our work, and those issues remain largely the same as in previous years,” said Logue, who has served in the role since 2016. “We went through 2019 without really any solid forward movement toward real solutions.”
Created in the wake of Otto Zehm’s 2006 killing by Spokane police, the Ombudsman’s office is tasked with providing civilian oversight of the police department. The ombudsman’s office, which is overseen by a civilian commission, can recommend changes in police department policy. It can also refer complaints to Internal Affairs for investigation and, though it can not dictate an officer’s punishment, can choose whether to certify the department’s inquiry as being timely, thorough and objective.
Reiterating his pleas of past years, Logue called for his office to be empowered to publish reports that summarize a case following the internal investigation into officer misconduct. Once again, he also asked the council to make his part-time administrative assistant full-time to help handle the office’s increasing workload.
In 2019, the ombudsman’s office fielded 100 complaints from community members, a 13% increase from the year before. It was the second increase in as many years and the largest number since 2014.
Nearly one-third of complaints taken by the Ombudsman’s office were referred to the officer’s superiors for review, and about half of those were determined by the department to be unfounded.
All but one of the department’s internal investigations were certified by the ombudsman.
Two complaints resulted in an officer being fired.
While he wishes the department never received a complaint, Spokane Police Chief Craig Meidl told The Spokesman-Review that over the course of about 250,000 contacts between citizens and officers every year, that is just “not realistic.”
Still, he noted that he has directed the department’s use-of-force review board to begin to analyze an officer’s demeanor in the scope of their review process.
“It’s something that we continue to watch and work on,” Meidl said of the number of complaints.
A closing report
In 2019, the ombudsman’s office poured substantial effort and resources into preparing a closing report – an outlining the facts of the case and the ombudsman’s recommendations – on a controversial arrest in February. His ability to publish such a report is embedded in city law, but muddied by the city’s conflicting labor agreement with the Spokane Public Guild. As a consequence, Logue, much to his chagrin, had not previously published a closing report.
The discrepancy between the ombudsman’s authority under city law and what’s actually written into the Spokane Police Guild’s contract has remained a controversy in 2020 and was the basis for the City Council’s rejection of a new guild contract earlier this year.
Eventually released in 2020, Logue’s 50-page closing report found numerous issues in the arrest carried out by Officer Dan Lesser, who deployed his police dog into a suspect’s pickup truck while yelling vulgar death threats. The dog bit the man on his leg, requiring stitches.
Logue’s closing report argued that the officers’ aggressive response put themselves and the dog at risk. It outlined multiple recommendations for changes to department procedures in response to the incident.
Following the department’s investigation, Meidl suspended Lesser one day for failing to activate his body camera and using vulgar language, but did not cite him for excessive use of force.
In his annual report, Logue lamented that he used the Public Records Act, a process he called “time consuming and unwieldy,” to ensure the public was able to review the documents related to the case and that he could publish a closing report.
“I’m pleased with the attention that we were able to shed on a case that has important officer safety and procedural issues which would have otherwise gone undocumented,” Logue told the council on Monday.
Regarding the Lesser case, Meidl said “my staff has said they’ve given him everything.” The case was in the process of being reviewed through the department’s chain of command when the Ombudsman’s Office notified the department of a complaint last year and referred it to Internal Affairs for investigation, he said.
Logue recommended the department change how it documents uses of force following the guidance of an independent analyst, which the city hired to review Spokane Police data from 2013 to 2018.
In its analysis, Police Strategies, LLC, found that the Spokane Police Department reported lower numbers of use-of-force incidents than other cities because it excluded physical confrontations in which the subject was not hurt. The department only requires an officer to file a use-of-force report for certain types of confrontation when the person is injured or complains of injury.
Logue called on the department to track any time an officer has to use any force, such as a bodyweight takedown, to take a suspect in custody, not just when it leads to injury or the complaint of an injury.
But Spokane Police conducted their own review of 13 law enforcement agencies across Washington and found that many don’t require such reporting for low-level uses of force.
Entering a use of force report into the department’s reporting software “takes significant time and resources, and SPD mirrors the practices of many other agencies in Washington State,” Meidl wrote in a response to Logue in 2019.
Meidl told The Spokesman-Review the issue is where to draw the line in defining a use of force, particularly at a time when there “seems to be a degree of defiance toward law enforcement that I’ve never seen in my career.”
Certain uses of force, like a neck restraint or pointing of a firearm, are always documented and reviewed. But less intrusive force, like grabbing a person’s arm to put them in handcuffs, is not.
Meidl said the department’s approach is to document “those things that absolutely need to be brought to our attention” while not overburdening department leaders.
“All force will be documented in a police report – certain ones we want brought to our attention so it can go through the chain of command to be reviewed,” Meidl said.
Meidl did abide, however, when Logue asked that the department re-establish the requirement that a supervisor notify the department’s Internal Affairs unit when he or she believes the officer violated the use-of-force policy. The requirement previously existed in the use-of-force policy, but was taken out when it was updated in 2019.
Now, in 2020…
Logue again asked the council to increase the employment status of his assistant, who fields complaints and enters them into computer software, from part-time to full-time in its 2021 budget. Though he acknowledged many city departments will face a budget squeeze due to the coronavirus, “the amount of work on the (ombudsman’s office) has risen substantially in the past five years.”
Although not within the scope of his 2019 report, Logue noted that Meidl has already asked him to review the department’s response to protests over the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd and police brutality in May. The request, Logue said, “is pretty significant if you consider where we were a year ago, and I’m really appreciative of Chief Meidl trusting” the ombudsman to “provide a thorough” report.
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