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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Native American organization wants agreement with Spokane Police renewed – and honored

NATIVE Project’s Toni Lodge says 2019 memorandum of understanding needs action.  (TYLER TJOMSLAND)
NATIVE Project’s Toni Lodge says 2019 memorandum of understanding needs action. (TYLER TJOMSLAND)

Community leaders are hoping to renew an agreement between the NATIVE Project and Spokane Police Department.

This time, they hope there is more of an effort to stick to its terms.

The memorandum of understanding was signed in 2019 by the police department and the NATIVE Project, a health care and service provider for Native Americans and others.

The current agreement, which is set to expire next month, is nonbinding but aims to increase collaboration and communication between Spokane police and Native Americans living in Spokane.

“We worked really hard on building this roadmap … we built it, but we didn’t drive it last time,” said Toni Lodge, executive director of The NATIVE Project, which is the largest organization for urban Indians in Spokane.

The memorandum of understanding was the product of several community meetings, where rooms packed with people initiated a “painful discussion about why” Native Americans were disproportionately among those shot by police, Lodge said.

In 2017, three of the seven people shot by Spokane police were Native American, and only one survived. That year, about 1.4% of county residents and 1.6% of city residents were Native American.

“This was before George Floyd. It wasn’t in Minneapolis, or the deep south. This was in Spokane,” Lodge said.

Lodge and Spokane Police Chief Craig Meidl discussed renewing the memorandum of understanding during a meeting of the City Council’s Public Safety and Community Health Committee on Monday.

The agreement tasks police with notifying and providing an explanation to the NATIVE Project any time there is a “critical incident,” such as a police shooting, involving a Native American person. It also calls for collaboration in the response to missing and murdered indigenous women, a crisis that has received state and national attention.

The deal also stipulates that the NATIVE Project will inform police of potential criminal activity on or off its premises, and that police promptly respond to its concerns in a timely manner.

By the most simple metric, the agreement worked, although cause and effect is difficult to prove. In 2019 and 2020, there was not a Native American shot by Spokane Police, according to the most recently available data catalogued in the Spokane Police Ombudsman’s annual reports.

Still, Lodge pressed for more action.

“Because we are so disproportionately represented in our criminal justice system, with police encounters and jail, (and) we have so few resources … we really have to continue working together,” Lodge said.

Meidl pointed to the COVID-19 pandemic for the inability to host the biennial community meetings outlined in the agreement.

Maureen Rosette, an attorney and the chief operating officer of the NATIVE Project, noted in response that the agreement was signed in February 2019, not February 2020, a year before the pandemic prompted state officials to set strict limits on public gathering and events.

During negotiations to create the original agreement in 2019, the city expressed concerns that the deal would be binding.

Rosette stressed that a memorandum of understanding is not a binding contract.

“You’re not legally bound to do these things, but we really would like it to be more adhered to,” Rosette said, particularly when it comes to collaborating to solve cases of missing indigenous people.

The city’s early hesitance, Meidl explained, wasn’t due to the agreement itself. The city wanted to ensure it made the same commitment to “all of the community,” Meidl said, including African Americans, Asians and Pacific Islanders.

“I didn’t want us in agency to be put in a position where we are pulling resources away from all these other entities as well, and … we have to respond based on priorities,” Meidl said.

Lodge agreed that all people need to be recognized, but said the specific needs of Native American people “need to be operationalized.”

Meidl expressed hope that COVID-19 recedes so the department can participate in the community meetings called for by the agreement.

He also credited Lodge and the NATIVE Project for participating in the department’s post-academy training for new officers, who hear communities of color share their experiences and thoughts on police.

New officers, Meidl said, “before they hit the street, are at least having that perspective.”

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