Some Spokane city officials say neighbors are wholly supportive of turning the former East Side Library into a new police precinct.
Other community members claim they weren’t even aware of the idea until just a few hours before the concept was unveiled Tuesday.
That conflict was on full display during a news conference detailing the precinct proposal, which would see the 6,000-square-foot building house police and on-site behavioral health resources under one roof.
The setup would create what officials have described as a neighborhood policing location. The concept is modeled after the Spokane Police Department’s downtown precinct, where officers are often deployed alongside mental health professionals, said Spokane police Chief Craig Meidl.
The Stone Street building, which abuts the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center, was vacated when Spokane Public Library opened a new branch at Liberty Park last fall.
As far as who would provide behavioral health services, the city is looking into providers that already work with Spokane police and the Martin Luther King Jr. Center, said city spokesman Brian Coddington. Frontier Behavioral Health and Excelsior Wellness were referenced specifically by Freda Gandy, executive director of the Martin Luther King Jr. Center, who said a goal is to increase the number of mental health professionals of color and alleviate barriers to access.
On the police side, it’s unclear how many police officers would be assigned to the precinct.
Once thought a temporary situation, a handful of officers for several years have used the second floor of a nunnery at St. Ann Catholic Church as a precinct, police said. Using the library would allow those officers to relocate.
“We spent many, many months listening to neighbors, hearing their thoughts and ideas about how this former library branch should be used,” Mayor Nadine Woodward said, “and those conversations have consistently come back to the community-oriented policing model that helps officers more proactively engage with the people that they serve and brings behavioral health resources for people to access in their very own neighborhood.”
The Spokane City Council will ultimately approve how the building is used. Gandy said she will work with the mayor’s office to modify the Martin Luther King Jr. Center’s contract to include operations and management of the library.
Councilman Michael Cathcart, who is spearheading the proposal alongside Woodward, said the precinct is especially needed given the rising number of police calls to the East Central Neighborhood.
Cathcart, Woodward and Gandy were joined for Tuesday’s news conference in the building’s parking lot by representatives of the East Central Neighborhood Council, the East Sprague Business Association and the Spokane Police Department, all of whom expressed their support for the concept.
“It is clear from the community outreach to date that residents of the East Central Neighborhood want and deserve a police precinct located in the neighborhood,” Cathcart said.
Gandy added, “I can’t think of a better way to use this space. I am looking forward to addressing the gaps in services.”
Comments on Tuesday from Councilwoman Betsy Wilkerson and members of a coalition called Rebuild East Central sharply contrasted with those sentiments, however.
The event was coming to a close when Wilkerson jumped in to say her piece. She said she and others aligned with Rebuild East Central – including members of the Spokane NAACP and the Carl Maxey Center – weren’t invited to Tuesday’s announcement.
“I’m asking, as we go forward, that this is a true community engagement of the people who actually live in this neighborhood,” Wilkerson said. “Can we have a cop shop in here? Absolutely. Will the precinct be open 24/7? Can neighbors come in and build relationships with the police? That’s what we want. We want that in our neighborhood. We want them here.”
The library building is located within City Council District 2, which Wilkerson represents. Wilkerson said nobody has issues with more public safety or mental health services.
Rebuild East Central is a coalition of advocates for economic development in the East Central Neighborhood, said Sandy Williams, executive director of the Carl Maxey Center.
“If the East Central Neighborhood says we want a police precinct, I’m all in, but I’ve not heard that yet,” Williams said. “We’re advocating for there to be a process to this. In the same way they called this thing, they could have called a town hall. … They could’ve done that instead of making an announcement.”
Meidl said a Spokane police captain canvassed “all of the neighbors” that surround the library for their opinions, receiving feedback “overwhelmingly” in favor of a police precinct.
Wilkerson described the situation as “selective outreach,” while saying the news conference felt “very staged.”
“We want to be good community partners,” she said, “but if you all do not allow us to have a voice in this process, it is about us without us, and that will be unacceptable and, as a councilmember, I will be in support of a community voice, whatever that be.”
Wilkerson said there is interest among other community members in seeing the library used in other ways, such as a mental health center or a cultural center.
Lili Navarrete, director of social justice for the Hispanic Business and Professionals Association in Spokane and a commissioner for the Washington State Commission on Hispanic Affairs, said the HBPA made a proposal and received community support for a cultural center to provide services for Latinx individuals as well as other underrepresented populations.
Gandy, who visibly took offense to statements from Wilkerson and Rebuild East Central, decrying the calls for a cultural center by pointing emphatically at the Martin Luther King Jr. Center as one that already exists in the neighborhood.
“We, as a community of color, need to stop this divisiveness. We need to stop this nonsense in our own community and find a way to work together, whether it’s NAACP, MLK Center, Carl Maxey Center,” Gandy said. “This divisiveness needs to end.”
“We want to work together,” Navarrete responded after the news conference. “We’re people of color; look what’s happening in the country.”
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