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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane police union stymied review of 2020 protests spurred by death of George Floyd

Spokane Police fires upon advancing protesters on Spokane Falls Boulevard after warning them to get back, Sunday, May 31, 2020. Dan Pelle/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW  (DAN PELLE)

For months, the Spokane Police Guild has blocked a formal review of law enforcement’s response to protests that erupted over George Floyd’s killing and devolved into chaos last year.

The city still has not conducted an analysis of the 2020 protests despite calls for one by the city’s independent police watchdog and Spokane Police Chief Craig Meidl.

Lessons from such a review could be helpful if and when demonstrators return to city streets, even if the pandemonium briefly seen last year does not, argued Spokane Police Ombudsman Bart Logue.

Spokane was one of numerous cities to rise in protest last spring in response to Floyd’s death and racial injustice, with thousands of people flooding downtown on May 31.

The Guild filed a formal grievance to stop a review of how police dealt with the demonstrations on Aug. 20, weeks after the Spokane City Council voted down a proposed labor agreement with the union.

In the grievance, Spokane Police Guild President Kris Honaker cited a letter Meidl sent Logue requesting a policy review following the protests. Essentially, Honaker argued, the letter amounted to a request for an investigation “into the actions of each officer on May 31, 2020,” not just a simple policy review.

The guild asked the city to immediately halt the ombudsman’s efforts and “work with the guild on determining the bounds” of any review by the ombudsman’s office.

The grievance remains unresolved.

City spokesman Brian Coddington initially told The Spokesman-Review Wednesday the grievance had been verbally resolved, and the police department would conduct a “comprehensive, internal, after-action review conducted by the department that the (Office of the Police Ombudsman) will review and make comments on and suggestions on policy revisions.”

That a resolution had been reached was news to Logue, who learned about it from The Spokesman-Review. Its terms did not satisfy his insistence on an independent investigation.

Coddington later said that after consultation between Logue and Meidl, the issue would remain open and the parties are “going to go back through the process and see if they can come up with a different way to resolve this.”

Although the union’s new contract provides the ombudsman with clearer authority to issue public reports on police policy and conduct, Logue’s involvement in the protest review is dictated by the labor agreement that existed at the time the grievance was filed, Coddington said. Under that agreement, the ombudsman’s ability to issue reports was long considered a legal gray area. Logue has only ever issued one closing report.

The protest

The May 31 demonstration started peacefully but rapidly spiraled out of control when people broke into the Nike outlet store on Main Avenue. Police promptly issued an order to disperse downtown and used smoke, tear gas and “less-lethal” bullets to enforce it.

When demonstrators returned the following weekend, police took a restrained approach, maintaining a limited presence downtown but amassing resources at a command center just outside of downtown. The protests did not result in violence.

Logue told The Spokesman-Review he requested materials related to the May 31 protest almost immediately after it occurred. He wants “everything,” he said, including recordings of police radio traffic, copies of mutual aid agreements with other police departments that responded to Spokane’s requests for help and details about the munitions officers were armed with.

“Why not evaluate it? In the Marine Corps, every action we did, we did an after-action report. Even if it went great, we wanted to document what we did and why,” Logue said.

Through Meidl’s eyes

Meidl met with the Ombudsman Commission, the civilian board that oversees the ombudsman’s office, earlier this month.

Many demonstrators have decried the police response on May 31, saying officers used excessive force, often against peaceful protesters.

He explained the protest response in much the same way he did in 2020 – that of a department woefully unprepared and understaffed for the scale of the protests, but quickly stamping them out at the first sign of a break-in.

“The line in the sand was when the group broke into the Nike Store,” Meidl said. “We’d already seen what had happened in other jurisdictions – that takes off like wildfire.”

Meidl described how the department’s hackles were raised early in the day, well before the violence started. Officers saw people carrying cartons of milk, which is used to soothe eyes of protesters irritated by pepper spray, protest signs engineered to double as shields and people wearing helmets.

“We knew even before 1 p.m., having never seen anything like this before, this is a different crowd,” Meidl said.

At an otherwise peaceful gathering in Riverfront Park, one man started to throw punches. When police tried to arrest him, they were surrounded by the crowd, Meidl said.

“Based on the vitriol, the yelling, the anger, everything that had manifested – they kept encroaching on the officers – we realized this is something we’ve never seen before,” Meidl said.

As the crowd departed Riverfront Park and marched to the north side of the Spokane River, Meidl explained “wisdom dictated” officers – who until that point had been in regular uniform – “fall back, get into your other gear.”

Meidl described how, later, the crowd zigzagged through downtown streets, damaging police cars and vandalizing the federal courthouse before arriving at River Park Square. When the Nike store was broken into, police issued a dispersal order.

They initially deployed smoke canisters, which prompted demonstrators to throw bricks, rocks and bottles at police, Meidl said. Officers then deployed tear gas. A cycle of pushing the demonstrators back with less-lethal munitions and tear gas lasted well into the night.

Commissioner Lili Navarrete told Meidl she was at the protests.

“A lot of people that I know were injured because of the gas,” Navarette said.

Despite defending the police response, Meidl welcomed an outside review.

“The more people we can have looking at this, the better … if nothing else, it will at least spark a good conversation,” Meidl said.

But Meidl told the commission that the Guild had raised concerns. Given that the city was in the midst of negotiations for a long-overdue new contract with the union, the city’s negotiating team asked to hold off on the independent protest review.

The new contract – the first in more than four years – was approved by the City Council on March 1, and Meidl expressed hope that an independent protest review could move forward.

Logue acknowledged the factors at play described by Meidl, but said he wants to fact check them with a full accounting of the day.

But the Guild argued that Meidl was essentially allowing Logue to conduct a preliminary investigation from which a broad complaint could be sent to internal affairs and lead to officer punishment.

Logue dismissed any concern that a report could be used to discipline individual officers, saying that per the labor agreement, they could not be named and it could not be used to determine punishment.

Logue does not have the authority under city law to discipline officers; that power is left to Meidl. But even Meidl cannot use the Ombudsman’s reports as evidence for punishment.

“If you think about why I exist, it’s to shed some light on some things – it’s not to harm officers or get officers in trouble, but it is to put accountability on a situation,” Logue said.

But the information given to Logue would far exceed what is necessary for a policy review, the Guild argued in its grievance.

The Guild did not respond to a request for comment on Wednesday.

Logue has not been stymied only by the Guild’s grievance. Citizens made numerous complaints with his office, allowing him to investigate specific incidents that occurred within the protest.

Six complaints were documented, but all have hit a dead end and were suspended. Logue attributed that lack of progress mostly to the difficulty of identifying police officers who donned tactical gear that obscures any way to identify them.

In a review, Logue said one of his policy suggestions would very likely be that officers be identifiable even when wearing tactical gear.

Spokane City Council President Breean Beggs peppered Meidl with questions following the May 31 protests and quickly proposed changes to police policy.

Beggs believes an independent review by the ombudsman is important because the office is perceived as objective “compared to the polarized factions that might have opinions about it.”

Those who would struggle to be objective include Beggs himself, he acknowledged, as he maintains mental “images of young community members in Spokane being shot with rubber bullets, tear gassed and chased into the park.”

Of the slate of reforms proposed by Beggs last year, many appear poised for adoption by the state Legislature, but some items on his wish list remain unaddressed. Last year, he proposed police be required to publish a “rules of engagement” ahead of protests, which is not included in current state proposals.

It’s also unclear to what extent the Legislature might limit the use of tear gas, which is holding up adoption of broader legislation that would regulate police tactics.

A formal review could be used as a basis to change police policy in Spokane. Logue would like his office to conduct it independently.

“It’s not independent if the city dictates what I can and can’t do in regards to this evaluation … tell us the rules, we’ll abide by the rules and then let us do our work,” Logue said.