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Shawn Vestal: Spokane Police ride-alongs raise concerns when used as council endorsement tool

Nov. 12, 2021 Updated Fri., Nov. 12, 2021 at 10:07 a.m.

When Karen Kearney was invited to go on a ride-along with Spokane Police Officer Richie Plunkett as she was running for a seat on the Spokane City Council, she didn’t think anything of it.

Kearney, the wife of a former Seattle Police Department officer who considers herself a supporter of police and other first responders, had been on many ride-alongs. But she agreed to go along with Plunkett on a shift patrolling the lower South Hill and downtown in May.

“I was very impressed,” she said. “I thought he was doing a great job.”

What she didn’t realize was that Plunkett would be using her ride-along, and the ride-alongs of other candidates, to evaluate them for election endorsements by the Spokane Police Guild and others in the community.

In a message written before the August primary that was apparently sent to the Guild’s endorsement panel, shared with others by a retired officer, and later posted on Facebook by at least one department employee, Plunkett relayed his views about the candidates.

This included the following:

  • How friendly candidates and council members were to other officers (“he spoke to every officer he met”);
  • Which candidates didn’t respond to his invitations (“I’m okay with that … as she leans toward the ‘defund the police’ narrative”);

How long candidates stuck

  • with the ride-along (one “rode with me for about 3 hours”; another rode “an entire shift with me”);
  • How the candidates behaved (“He asked a lot of good questions and took lots of notes”);
  • Who was on the side of the police (“He … is very pro-police”) and who was not (“(She) … mentioned lots of anti-police rhetoric”).

He made a point of endorsing Mike Lish in the primary, writing “I gave my personal endorsement (to Lish) as our guild is not endorsing anyone until after the primaries.”

State law and city ethics policy prohibits city employees from using public resources – including time on the job – to campaign for political issues or candidates.

The president of the Guild, Kris Honaker, told Kearney in an email message that Plunkett used his personal email address to send the message to the Guild members. However, in her opinion – and in the opinion of several other candidates – using on-duty ride-alongs as unannounced endorsement interviews crosses an ethical and legal line.

Kearny initiated a complaint about the process with the Office of the Ombudsman last week, which could lead to an internal affairs investigation. Because there is an investigation pending, Police Chief Craig Meidl declined to comment. Plunkett and Honaker also declined to comment.

Kearney lost in the primary to Lish, who went on to lose a close race to Zack Zappone. But she said she isn’t acting out of sour grapes. She praised Plunkett as an officer, as did several other candidates and council members, and she waited until after the Nov. 2 general election to raise her criticisms to avoid the appearance that she was trying to act out of retribution.

But she felt the ride-along evaluations were improper. When she approached the department and the Guild to discuss it, she felt she was not taken seriously. She said the Guild has fallen short in training officers about following the laws about campaigning on the job.

“That wasn’t supposed to be an endorsement procedure, to go on a ride-along,” she said. “I was shocked. I thought it was inappropriate.”

A common complaint

State and city law prevent public employees from using public resources to further candidates or ballot issues, and from doing so while on the clock. On their own time, they have the same rights as any other citizen to participate in political campaigns.

State law says that no public employee “may use or authorize the use of any of the facilities of a public office or agency, directly or indirectly, for the purpose of assisting a campaign.”

Facilities, in this usage, includes employee time.

However, the law recognizes the importance of public officials informing the public – and candidates, by extension – about government operations, and it allows some use of public facilities when they are equally available to all candidates, used to present “relevant and objective facts,” or involve “normal and regular activities” of an agency.

The city charter prohibits “the use of public facilities of a public office to support or oppose a ballot measure or an election campaign,” and prohibits “an employee, while fulfilling the duties of City employment, from actively engaging in a political campaign.”

It goes on to say, “City employees shall not use their positions, offices, facilities or public resources to attempt to persuade anyone else to participate in or contribute to a political campaign.”

Violating those laws is no small matter. In 2018, a city clerk of 20 years, Bob West, was fired for doing internet searches and other activity related to his daughter’s campaign for the Spokane Valley City Council.

The separation of public and political business is important at all levels of government. In 2019, Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers was sanctioned by the House Ethics Committee because she “frequently exhibited indifference to laws, rules and regulations” separating the public’s business and campaign work. She was ordered to repay the government more than $7,000, representing time that her staff, paid by the public, had spent on campaign activities.

Kim Bradford, deputy director of the Washington Public Disclosure Commission, said complaints about campaigns crossing these lines are very common.

“This particular section of state law is one of the sections most often cited by complaints to the PDC,” she said. “It is always very fact-specific. It would take a close evaluation of the particulars” to determine if the law was violated.

In one recent example, one of Zappone’s political opponents filed a complaint with the PDC over campaign ads that show him on a public sidewalk in front of a school, and at a table with young people. The complaint claims he was using public facilities associated with his work as a teacher.

Zappone said the photo with young people was not taken at a school, but at the Martin Luther King Jr. Center. He said he avoided using materials showing him at public schools specifically because of the guidance around using public facilities.

‘A line you should not cross’

City Councilwoman Kate Burke, who is leaving office after her current term ends, said when you work in a taxpayer-funded position, it’s clear how important it is to separate public business from campaigning.

“As a state employee when I worked for Sen. (Andy) Billig, I wasn’t allowed to participate in anything campaign-related when I was on the job,” she said.

Burke has gone on ride-alongs in the past, but declined an invitation to do so again from Plunkett last year. She said that in previous years, she never understood them to be used as evaluations for endorsements. Even if an officer wrote up his evaluations on his own time, she said it seems inappropriate to use that time on shift in that way.

“If he’s doing his job while evaluating candidates … that’s still during work hours,” she said. “If he was meeting them for coffee on his day off to evaluate them, that’s totally different.”

Councilwoman Lori Kinnear agreed.

She said she has met Plunkett and was impressed with him and the way he engaged the people who are homeless downtown.

“That said, if indeed he did use the time to get with candidates and evaluate them and then use that to influence the Guild and to influence voters, that’s a line you should not cross,” she said.

Other candidates were less concerned about it. Michael Cathcart, who has gone on several ride-alongs, said they are informative and there is a good reason for candidates to do them. If an officer, who is a Guild member, forms impressions during that time and then shares them later, it doesn’t seem like a major issue.

“Ultimately, I guess, they’re Guild members and they have the ability to share their experiences with each other,” he said.

Jonathan Bingle, who won election in Burke’s district, said that he would be concerned about the process if all candidates were not given the same opportunity .

Given that learning about police work is important to someone who sits on the City Council, he said, it’s hard to separate out the educational component of such an activity for a candidate and the political component in which an officer is making an evaluation.

“At first glance, I wouldn’t say it’s inappropriate,” he said.

‘Great opportunity to learn’

It is not the first time that political activities by police officers have come under scrutiny. After years of lying low politically, during the Otto Zehm years and the subsequent era of reforms, the Spokane Police Guild has re-entered politics more determinedly in recent years, making candidate endorsements and contributing to candidates.

It’s a space that the firefighters union used to occupy more prominently, but after years of aggressive electioneering, that union scaled way back in this cycle. Police officers and their union have gone the other direction, and sometimes in ways that have raised concerns.

Council President Breean Beggs said that council members have on more than one occasion raised concerns about officers, at neighborhood meetings or other public forums, expressing their views on political issues at the Legislature or in front of the City Council.

“That’s not appropriate to do in uniform,” he said. “On their own time … that’s fine.”

Just prior to last week’s election, body-camera footage made its way onto right-wing radio in Seattle – and then Fox News – intended to paint Councilwoman Betsy Wilkerson as reluctant to help solve a murder.

The video does not actually confirm what the officers say about Wilkerson’s behavior, though, and Wilkerson has filed an ombudsman’s complaint about how word of the video was leaked.

Zappone was targeted by a huge number of negative ads depicting him as a “defund the police” candidate, based on his signing of a pledge seeking to redirect more resources to community-based alternatives to target underlying causes of crime.

One line of attack employed a falsehood based on a typo in a message he wrote on Facebook, in which it’s clear that he intended to write he did not support defunding the police, but accidentally omitted “not.”

It’s obvious from the surrounding context that this was a mistake. But his opponents – including the Guild on its Facebook page – screen-grabbed it and promoted it as an accurate representation of his views.

Zappone said that he was more concerned about that kind of campaign dishonesty by public employees than the ride-along endorsements. Still, he said he didn’t know his time in the car would be used as an evaluation.

“I definitely thought it to be an educational purpose,” he said. “I thought it was a great opportunity to learn. I did not get any impression that the ride-along was going to be evaluative.”

Beggs was invited on a ride-along by Plunkett last year, along with other members of the council. As Plunkett wrote in his evaluation after the fact, both Beggs, who is recovering from throat cancer, and Kinnear said they would do one when the pandemic has eased.

Beggs said that the use of on-duty time to perform candidate evaluations seems problematic at first glance.

“I think it’s concerning that an employee would use city resources to try and influence candidate outcomes,” he said. “That seems like a problem to me.”

‘Politically skewed’

In his emails to council members and candidates, Plunkett introduced himself, went into his background and how long he’s been in Spokane, and invited them to join him for a shift. He did not say anything about endorsements.

In the evaluation he wrote that was sent to the Guild and shared on Facebook in July, he said he had offered ride-alongs to eight candidates in Districts 1 and 3, and reported on how they responded, and how they behaved on the ride-along.

As Kearney put it, “He went down with each candidate and said ‘yea’ or ‘nay.’ ”

One candidate, Lacrecia Hill, declined a ridealong and then didn’t get back to him to set up a time to have coffee, he wrote. “If she doesn’t want to have an open mind to law enforcement, so be it,” he wrote. “It should be known she is very much part of the ‘defund the police’ movement and has connections to those who are even further politically skewed with the abolishment of law enforcement movement.”

He noted that Burke was polite in declining a ridealong last year but used “anti-police rhetoric.” He wrote that Naghmana Sherazi, who lost to Bingle, runs “only Burke’s same ideas and leans toward the ‘defund the police’ narrative.”

His enthusiasm for Lish was distinct.

“Not only is he personable with officers, but he does well with many businesses across the cities and residential areas where he (has) been able to reach out to see what people want,” he wrote.

Plunkett’s comments about Kearney were restrained by comparison, though he wrote, “It was nice to have someone who wants to get into a local political spot ask for law enforcement’s opinion.”

Kearney saw Plunkett’s letter on a Facebook page posted by an SPD employee. It was introduced as having come from Kevin King, a retired SPD major, who called it a “shared post from a City officer” and “an accurate assessment.”

Kearney said she was shocked to see it posted. She understood from her own family connections to law enforcement that it was problematic. She approached the assistant police chief, Justin Lundgren, and Honaker to ask about it, but felt she was not taken seriously.

“I don’t want to be seen as a sore loser,” she said. “But what happened happened, and I don’t think it should happen again.”

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