By Tim Connor
The circumstances surrounding the death of Otto Zehm at the hands of Spokane police in 2006 marked a turning point in the relationship between city government and the Spokane community.
After a local prosecutor declined to prosecute, the U.S. Justice Department opened a criminal investigation. That probe led to the conviction of an SPD officer and a broader indictment of the department for its decisions to “engage in an extensive cover-up” of video and other evidence implicating police misconduct. The revelations were all the more incendiary as city officials issued public statements suggesting the innocent, developmentally disabled janitor was responsible for his own killing.
In the decade since, the issues over police reform and efforts to put in place civilian oversight of the department have been the dominant issues in city politics. Those issues have boiled over, again, this year. Mayor David Condon, (who unseated his predecessor, Mary Verner, by focusing on her mishandling of the Zehm case) is now under intense scrutiny and facing a possible recall election for his administration’s efforts to cover-up and mislead the public about the circumstances behind police chief Frank Straub’s forced resignation last September.
The allegations against Condon and his administration are detailed in a report by independent investigator Kris Cappel released in late July. Just days later, the controversy reached yet another climax after Mayor Condon abruptly terminated a seven-month selection process to find a new chief. Rather than choose one of the two final candidates, he simply announced he was appointing Assistant Chief Craig Miedl to the position. Miedl had not formally sought the job. Moreover, he has come under fire for being among the SPD officers who saluted Karl Thompson, Jr., as Thompson was leaving a federal courtroom after being sentenced for excessive force and lying to investigators.
During this period, PJALS leadership and members—working with and through the Spokane Police Accountability Reform Coalition (SPARC)—have been very active and vocal in calls for due process, transparency, and accountability. The mayor’s appointment of Miedl was met with fierce public resistance. On the eve of an expected city council vote on Miedl’s confirmation, the mayor announced he would defer the appointment. Instead, as part of an announced agreement the council, Condon agreed to a limited reopening of the search and vetting process, so that Miedl would at least be part of a four-person pool of finalists who will receive a consistent level of scrutiny.
In the midst of the new political firestorm swirling around Condon, PJALS (again, through SPARC) has been working to ensure that a new collective bargaining agreement with the Spokane Police Guild is not used to further block independence for the city’s Office of Police Ombudsman (OPO). Since 2013, the city charter has required the OPO be independent, yet the collective bargaining agreements with Spokane police tightly restrict any independence, and this is mirrored the existing city ordinance. SPARC is insisting this contradiction end, and that with a new collective bargaining agreement in the works, the coalition is encouraging the city council to insist on conformance with the independence required by the city charter.
Simultaneous to the controversy over the mayor’s out-of-the-blue selection of Miedl, the Office of Police Ombudsman Commission was conducting public interviews of two finalists to become the city’s next police ombudsman. The finalists are interim Ombudsman Bart Logue, and Jacqueline MacConnell, a veteran Arizona police officer with extensive experience in community policing. A key issue in the selection process has been questions regarding how the Ombudsman office can free itself of the public perception that is lacks independence and is a captive of the police department’s internal affairs branch.
In mid-August PJALS partnered with the Portland NAACP chapter and Seattle-based Mothers for Police Accountability to organize a regional conference on police accountability. The plan, going forward, is that the conference will be an annual event, and be hosted by PJALS in Spokane next year. The Portland gathering attracted close to 50 participants from throughout the region to work on local and statewide strategies to monitor police conduct and increase accountability for officers implicated in unlawful uses of force and other serious misconduct. Both Seattle and Portland are under federal Department of Justice mandates to reform police practices, including use of force protocols, civilian oversight, and steps to ensure equity for people of color and those with disabilities.