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Shawn Vestal: Guild’s blockade of protest review shows we haven’t crossed the oversight finish line yet

Shawn Vestal  (DAN PELLE)
Shawn Vestal (DAN PELLE)

A couple of short months ago, the city struck a deal with the union that represents Spokane cops.

The new contract awarded a big raise to officers, who had gone without increases for several years, and it was alleged – by the mayor, council president and everyone else involved – to finally, at long last, bring the Spokane Police Guild labor agreement into compliance with the city charter’s demand for independent civilian oversight.

The raises – amounting to about 3.5% in pay and benefits for each of five years dating back to 2016 – cost the city nearly $10 million.

But even as the contract was being celebrated at City Hall, the Guild had stymied an inquiry into the department’s response to last year’s George Floyd protests, a day of peaceful protest that turned chaotic and destructive at night and prompted a militant police response that some criticized.

The review had been sought last year by the ombudsman, Bart Logue, and Police Chief Craig Meidl – but the Guild had filed a grievance in August, demanding that the review be halted and that the chief work with the Guild on “determining the bounds” of the review.

Until this week, the investigation has remained stuck at the starting gate.

Same as it ever was. At every stage in the battle for accountability, the Guild stands in the way.

Now – following a front-page story on the grievance in The Spokesman-Review last week – there is again movement toward a review of the police response last May 31. Logue said Wednesday that he’s been asked to provide a description of what he would investigate to Meidl, in the hopes of coming up with parameters the Guild can accept.

“We should be good to go,” Logue said.

And only a short nine months after the chief of police first asked for it.

Meanwhile, cities across the nation have completed their after-action reviews of how they handled protests and unrest in the days after the murder of George Floyd. In New York and Baltimore and Denver, reviews have been completed. In Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., and Indianapolis, reviews have been completed.

In more than a dozen cities, according to a New York Times investigation, after-action reviews are complete, and in several other cities, including Seattle and Minneapolis, reviews are still under way.

“In city after city, the reports are a damning indictment of police forces that were poorly trained, heavily militarized, and stunningly unprepared for the possibility that large numbers of people would surge into the streets,” the Times reported.

In Spokane last May 31, hundreds and hundreds of people spent the afternoon protesting the Floyd killing and demanding racial justice in policing. All day long, peaceful protesters filled downtown streets, rallied in the park and marched to the courthouse.

At nightfall, though, things turned destructive, with the looting of the Nike store and a subsequent refusal of remaining protesters to disperse as police demanded. Officers fired tear gas and rubber bullets; bystanders – and at least one journalist – were struck, and many complained about the tactics.

A week later, at a similar event, police responded with a noticeably less militant approach.

Logue said he initially broached the idea of doing a review of the department’s actions, to see what worked and what didn’t, and how things might be improved. It was a unique incident, and examining what happened could be useful for the future, he said.

Meidl agreed and sent a letter to Logue requesting a policies-and-procedures review in July, the Guild grieved it in August, Meidl rejected the grievance – and then everything stalled. The next step in the process would have been for the city administrator to rule on the grievance, and we didn’t have one. There was also a desire to wait until contract negotiations were complete, Meidl said.

Now, though, it seems the chief has managed to get the skiff unstuck. It’s good news that a review may be forthcoming, and it’s good that both the chief and the ombudsman seem to agree that it would be valuable, but it’s preposterous – again – that this is what passes for independence for the ombudsman.

The union’s authority to dictate and control the direction of the “independent” ombudsman has been, and remains, completely out of balance with that of the public, police administrators and city officials.

Citizens’ oversight should be wrenched out of police contracts altogether; some initial efforts to do so fell by the wayside in the Olympia sausage factory this year. Reformers must continue to press for them, because in an age where police accountability is ever more important to the public, the officers themselves simply cannot control the oversight to this degree.

It will be interesting to see how the review goes, as a further inquiry into the possible existence of wisps of good faith among Guild members. A key question will be how many officers speak with the ombudsman and how many refuse.

There are all kinds of ways to prevent accountability, after all. One imagines the Guild knows them all.

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