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Spokane’s ‘community conversation’ on police reform is beginning a year after protests

UPDATED: Sun., May 30, 2021

Police in riot gear maintain an uneasy standoff with crowds of protesters on May 31, 2020, outside the Spokane County Courthouse during a protest over the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.  (JESSE TINSLEY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
Police in riot gear maintain an uneasy standoff with crowds of protesters on May 31, 2020, outside the Spokane County Courthouse during a protest over the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. (JESSE TINSLEY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

Shielded from the eye of public scrutiny, city leaders have quietly begun closed-door discussions about policing in Spokane.

Nearly a year after protests rocked the city, and delays caused by unpredictably evolving restrictions on in-person meetings, city officials finally have launched a “community conversation” on police reform in Spokane.

Since the demonstrations, the city has not made any substantive change to police policy – or even publicly debated any proposals to do so – but state legislators adopted a sweeping set of police reforms this spring that have set a new baseline for talks in the city of Spokane.

The lack of progress is frustrating, said Kurtis Robinson, executive director of I Did the Time and vice president of the NAACP’s Spokane chapter.

It’s disappointing, Robinson said, “that there has not necessarily been the greatest manifestation of resolution that I believe people were crying out for, marching for and hoping for.”

Nearly a year after the protests, Spokane’s community conversation started last week and is, for now, open only to a select few.

In designing the talks this way, city leaders are betting that the intimate environment will build trust between representatives of historically disparate communities.

“People were sharing their life stories, essentially, very personal things, speaking very frankly to each other, which is what we wanted,” said Spokane City Council President Breean Beggs. “That’s just not the same conversation if you’re at a conference table in the middle of a gym and there’s people surrounding you.”

Mayor Nadine Woodward and Beggs opened the forum but have turned it over to two outside facilitators, Kiantha Duncan, president of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP, and Andrea Brenneke, an attorney whose history includes working for the Seattle Police Department on community reconciliation.

“I think we have to be in a place where we trust the space that we’re having these conversations in and trust the people we’re having these conversations with,” Woodward said.

Leaders even considered requiring participants to sign a nondisclosure agreement, according to Beggs, but ultimately decided it would not be necessary.

The closed-door meetings have no specific timeline, but Beggs and Woodward hope to eventually draw feedback from the entire city.

Even some of the roundtable’s willing participants – of which there are 17 from a cross section of community groups and city law enforcement – expressed uneasiness with holding the initial meetings in private.

The Spokane Police Guild, which represents the department’s officers, is participating in the talks. But its representative, Tim Schwering, said that “it’s not really much of a community conversation with most of the community being excluded from the conversation.”

“While we are glad that we have a seat at the table, we think more voices should be heard from the community,” Schwering said.

Toni Lodge, CEO of the Native Project, noted that the “community didn’t convene it,” and said “we’re just invited guests.”

“It’s a hard push any way you look at it,” Lodge said. “If you don’t show up, communities aren’t represented.”

Beggs stressed that the group is not making policy decisions.

“It really is a human-scale conversation,” Beggs said.

What took so long?

The conversation was stalled largely by COVID-19 restrictions.

At one point last summer, the city had gone as far as selecting an outdoor venue with a social-distanced capacity for about 100 participants before increasing COVID-19 case rates and state restrictions put the kibosh on it.

The pandemic made it impossible to host a large gathering, but city officials insisted the reform conversation be held in-person and face-to-face, not on a digital platform like Zoom.

“There’s just something lost in having really some heart-to-heart or raw conversations via the internet,” said Spokane Police Chief Craig Meidl.

The downside of the delay, Meidl acknowledged, is that people “didn’t want to wait, they wanted to start moving forward right away.”

Who’s at the table

In most cases, Beggs and Woodward agreed on a community that needed to be represented, then allowed that community to select its own representative.

The participants include representatives from groups like the NAACP, Spokane Community Against Racism, National Alliance on Mental Illness, and the Spokane Police Ombudsman Commission.

Beggs and Woodward acknowledged that there are many more people willing to participate than were actually invited.

Though the group is small, Meidl said the participants “bring the stories they’ve heard from other people, so they’re really also a voice for other people in the community.”

Young people, who were a driving factor in last year’s protest, are not represented. For 17-year-old Jada Richardson, who emerged as a leader at the protests, the community conversations are “shields from public accountability.” Richardson participated in a televised conversation with city leaders, including Woodward, shortly after the protest, and she said it made her feel tokenized and pressured to defend the police rather than be frank about how she felt.

The selective nature of the conversations made Richardson feel like city leaders selected people who will speak to officials the way they want to be spoken to, instead of working toward change for real people.

“Community conversations with elected officials and the same five leaders, I think they’re counterproductive,” Richardson said. “A lot of them also think there’s this middle ground between white supremacy and Black liberation, and there’s not.”

The conversation

Community engagement is not new to the department, Meidl stressed, but between protests over Floyd’s death and the COVID-19 pandemic, “it felt like we went backwards even further than we had been before we started this process.”

By holding the meetings outside of public view, Beggs and Woodward hope to avoid empty posturing and encourage stark, bare discussions.

The first discussion focused mostly on the laying of ground rules and sparking an open discussion about perspectives and lived experience, with very little time devoted to analyzing actual police policy, according to Beggs and Woodward.

At this point, there is no set timeline for the conversations, although they are expected to last much of the year.

The talks were designed in a way that intentionally avoided being overly prescriptive.

There is not yet a defined goal, such as a list of policy recommendations that would be forwarded to the City Council for review.

Instead, the participants are working to find answers to the questions they entered with and leave with “common ground,” Beggs said.

The protests

Spokane was one of just numerous cities in which protesters flooded the streets in the wake of Floyd’s death.

The May 31 protest in Spokane was unlike any other in the city’s recent history. It ended in conflict when police used tear gas and less-lethal bullets to disperse protesters after a Nike Store was briefly looted downtown. At the protest and in the days following, 23 people were arrested.

In the days and weeks following that first protest, people continued to protest, often in large numbers, but none of the events following May 31 ended in violence.

The marches’ impact was clear, and Beggs and Woodward rushed to introduce separate proposals for police reform the next month.

Beggs’ list of reforms included more than two dozen proposals, like a requirement that police publish a “rules of engagement” with protesters, only fire rubber bullets in self-defense and release body camera footage upon request within 45 days, unless it’s tied to an active criminal investigation.

Beggs ultimately backed off, agreeing instead to take a collaborative approach with the city’s executive branch.

“I was convinced that it would be more effective for the community in the long run if we got as much agreement for as many of those 27 things as we could,” Beggs said. “And that’s why I agreed to do this process.”

A year later, Beggs noted that a number of the proposals he laid out were actually taken care of by the state Legislature’s reform package this spring. The legislature limited the use of tear gas during protests and banned the use of chokeholds, for example.

Spokane’s starting point

The city has had an independent police ombudsman for more than a decade, largely as a result of the death of Otto Zehm, a Spokane resident with schizophrenia who died in police custody after he was beaten and hogtied by officers inside a convenience store.

Spokane’s police department has voluntarily participated in a review of its practices by the Department of Justice and implemented a number of its subsequent recommendations. Every Spokane police officer now receives 40 hours of crisis intervention training, and the department has an entire de-escalation policy on the books.

“We’ve been doing all these great things, and the police should get a lot of credit,” Beggs said. “Yet, at the same time, there is still a lot of brokenness in the relationship between police and the community, particularly communities of color.”

Woodward noted the Spokane Police Guild’s new contract – approved earlier this year after four-plus years of stalled negotiations – now matches the police oversight embedded in the City Charter.

Still, both acknowledged there’s work to be done.

Even Beggs, a champion of police reform who represented Zehm’s family in a civil lawsuit following his killing, credits the department for its improvements.

“(There is) lots of work to do, but we’re so much better off than March of 2006 when Otto Zehm was killed,” Beggs said.

Making major changes to the way policing works in Spokane has been, and will continue to be, an awkward and uncertain transition, Robinson said. He also acknowledged what he sees as the community’s role in getting to this place.

“In many ways, we have failed the law enforcement community by not holding them accountable,” Robinson said. “We have never really done that as an American institution, let alone as an Eastern Washington community.”

While there were thousands of people in attendance at Spokane protests, the number of people continuing to do work on police reform and related social justice issues has dwindled, Robinson said. But knowing that such a large group of people supports the cause was an important product of the events, he said.

The Spokane Police Department has the third-highest rate of fatal police shootings of the 100 largest departments in the country, according to Mapping Police Violence.

Meanwhile, an independent review of the police response to last year’s protests has been stymied by the Spokane Police Guild. The lack of progress on the review is “disappointing,” said Ombudsman Bart Logue.

A chance for change

Held earlier this month, the first session lasted seven hours.

Lodge said she’s willing to give reform discussions one more go.

“The revolution is being recorded this time, and I think there’s an impetus that had not been present maybe 10 years ago … that’s the hope I have, is that maybe there’s an urgency about it,” Lodge said. “You cannot disregard a million people standing in the streets.”

Richardson isn’t optimistic that the issues she sees with policing in Spokane can be addressed and said she expects significant roadblocks, but her generation isn’t backing down.

“I applaud this generation of youth who are saying enough is enough,” she said.

While proud of the department’s reform efforts, Meidl said, “I’m not resting on my laurels.”

He added: “That’s history. We learned. We grew.”

From the community conversation, Meidl said he hopes to leave with a clear understanding of what the community expects of its police department, particularly when it comes to its interaction with people of color.

“When do you want us to use force, what do you want that force to look like, and is it reasonable,” Meidl said, adding some officers are currently afraid to use force, even if it’s justified, for fear of backlash.

For Robinson, fear of using force is a positive thing, part of the “readjustment” that will be necessary to make Spokane and the United States as a whole better when it comes to policing.

“People don’t really want to come to terms with how America really is,” Robinson said, referencing the passage in the Declaration of Independence that says all men are created equal. “We actually have the opportunity to really manifest that in a way that has never happened before.”

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