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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: The case of the body-cam smear tests limits of police oversight system

Betsy Wilkerson is photographed on Jan. 16, 2020, at her Spokane home.  (JESSE TINSLEY/The Spokesman-Review)
Betsy Wilkerson is photographed on Jan. 16, 2020, at her Spokane home. (JESSE TINSLEY/The Spokesman-Review)

Do you recall the body-cam smear against Councilwoman Betsy Wilkerson, which made its way from the police department to Fox News last fall?

The video showed little but a cop complaining that Wilkerson had not been “enthused” to help him, but all the rhetorical flocking around it spun up a tale tailor-made for right-wing media: A dastardly African American politician refusing to help the cops solve a murder.

Wilkerson complained to the ombudsman’s office, suspicious that the video had been improperly leaked. The department’s internal-affairs wing investigated, found the release of the video was legally proper, but concluded they had exhausted all leads with regard to any leak of information while the case was open.

The man who requested, obtained and spread the video around town before it made its way to the Jason Rantz radio show – Chud Wendle, the politically pugilistic anti-homeless campaigner and former Cathy McMorris Rodgers staffer – denied he heard about the video from the police while the investigation was open.

He said, in a very brief and unprobing IA interview, that he was alerted to it by “multiple” people in the Woodward administration, whom he would not name. He has recently said on social media that he heard it from council sources.

This, of course, leaves the matter of whether there was police involvement far from settled. The ombudsman’s office wanted the department to dig deeper, and interview all of the 28 people – in SPD, the prosecutor’s office and administration – who had seen the video while the case was ongoing.

Chief Craig Meidl declined to do that, arguing that Wendle’s interview essentially settled the matter. The ombudsman then refused to certify the investigation as objective (and complained that the head of IA, who was among those who had knowledge of the video, had improperly interfered with the investigation).

And now the limits of our oversight system will be tested.

From the start of Spokane’s attempts to create oversight of the police department and citizen complaints, the independence of the ombudsman has repeatedly been sold out to the police officers union. Two administrations in a row have ignored the city charter – which calls for independent investigative authority – and agreed to place astonishing limits on that independence through the Police Guild’s contract.

As it now stands, the ombudsman cannot conduct an investigation at all, until the IA process has played out and other administrative hurdles are cleared.

It’s never happened. Not once.

It may now. The five-member commission that oversees the ombudsman will consider whether to vote for an independent investigation into the question.

Members of the commission, at their April meeting, were clearly facing unprecedented territory, and wanted to consider the question further before making a decision at a future meeting. Ombudsman Bart Logue told them that such an investigation would be hamstrung by the limits placed on his office, which cannot compel any officer to testify and cannot express any opinions whatsoever in writing a report.

These very limits would be a reason to do the investigation – to display just how far our system stands from true independence and perhaps goad our leaders into pushing for something better.

The Wilkerson video isn’t the most serious police complaint in the world. Leaks happen all the time, and I’ve been on the receiving end of more than a few. But the larger question is: What happens when our ombudsman wants to investigate a complaint that the chief of police won’t investigate?

If the answer is nothing, that speaks volumes.

Meidl, in an interview last week, said he believes the matter has been resolved as far as the police department is concerned. He said Wendle’s denial puts the source of the information outside the department and its internal-affairs process.

He also made an impassioned case that the “real story” and “true tragedy” of this matter was Wilkerson’s refusal to immediately turn over security camera footage when officers asked for it. They had asked for the footage in August 2020, regarding the murder of a woman earlier that day in Browne’s Addition.

“I feel the true tragedy of this story is a homicide just occured, and when officers asked if they could view (security camera footage) she said she’s not enthused about that,” he said.

What, he asked, would the victim’s parents think of a community leader who did that?

The interaction occurred at a group home for disabled people that Wilkerson owns in Browne’s Addition. In the leaked video, two officers with police dogs stand on her porch and ask her questions about her outward-facing security cameras, and whether they “possibly captured events that occurred today around 12 o clock.”

You can’t hear anything Wilkerson says. They ask for her name and number, and whether they could “get hold of that footage.” At that point, they mention the murder.

What Wilkerson did was ask officers for a warrant before she turned over the footage – something she said was standard practice given the fact that there were several other people who live in the home, all with their own privacy rights to consider.

After they’ve left, one officer tells the other that Wilkerson “wasn’t too enthused” to help. The other says, “She’s a piece of work.”

Wilkerson denies saying she wasn’t enthused or anything like it. They obtained a warrant and returned for the video two days later. (The murderer, Nathan Beal, was caught, convicted and sentenced to more than three decades in prison. The video did not come into play in the case.)

A source who is close to the matter, speaking on the condition that they not be identified, said Wendle learned of the incident from a senior member of the administration in City Hall, because Wilkerson had bragged at City Hall about turning officers away at her door.

Wilkerson said she spoke about the matter at City Hall, but denied she was “bragging” about it. Whether her conversations were, in and of themselves, enough to produce a records request for specific piece of body-cam footage is a matter that a thorough investigation would attempt to answer.

From the ombudsman’s perspective, the fact that someone, or multiple someones, in the Woodward administration or at City Hall may have alerted Wendle doesn’t mean there weren’t other communications involved. Deputy Ombudsman Luvimae Omana, who handled the case, noted that the police canon of ethics prohibit discussing the details of open cases with the public.

Wendle’s first records request came when the case was still open; his second came right as it was closed. The IA records show he was in communication with the police department about the matter, receiving an email from Lt. David Overhoff alerting him that the Wilkerson video was on the Rantz show.

However the video made it into the public realm, the intent to deploy it as a half-baked political attack was obvious. It was a nothingburger and it died quickly, as it deserved to. Still, it would be very interesting to know for sure who helped frame it up.

More importantly, it will be vital to learn just how independent our ombudsman’s system can, and cannot, be.

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