Thursday, July 22, 2010

Inlander responds to allegations of bias

Posted by on Thu, Jul 22, 2010 at 2:35 PM

Nine days ago, the Spokane police chief, a city attorney, a city spokeswoman and the county sheriff came to Inlander offices to complain about our July 1 cover story, “Strong Arm of the Law,” which examined the issue of excessive force and transparency at local law enforcement agencies.

City Attorney Rocky Treppiedi said at the July 13 meeting there were numerous factual errors in the article and indicated he would provide a list of them. The Inlander is committed to publishing accurate information and correcting the record when appropriate, but to date, no list has been provided, despite repeated requests.

“I apologize. Rocky has been under several court-imposed deadlines on other cases,” city spokeswoman Marlene Feist wrote The Inlander on Tuesday. “He will surely be done this week, but I don't have any greater specificity at this point. Please know that this is a priority for us; we will get you something.”

Nevertheless, the Spokane Police Lieutenants and Captains Association issued a letter to officers and the media yesterday extolling the good work of police while complaining about a “slanted perspective” in the news media. The letter cites two stories: the July 1 Inlander article and a June 27 story in the Spokesman-Review, which also looked at the issue of excessive force.

“The time has come to tell the citizens of Spokane in plain language that their police department is a good one,” the letter reads.

The Inlander’s “Strong Arm of the Law” article examined the process by which local law enforcement agencies handle excessive force complaints. (Most internal investigations end without finding any officers at fault.)

The article also raised questions about why, in the case of the Spokane Police Department, the city keeps internal reports relating to those complaints secret unless the accused officer is found in the wrong — a policy out of step with procedures at law enforcement agencies across the state, including the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office.

After the article was published, Spokane Mayor Mary Verner said she planned to review the city’s records policies. “It’s time for us to take a look at this,” Verner told The Inlander. “It certainly is a priority for me. … Our city’s not adverse to ongoing reforms.”

City Councilman Bob Apple has been vocal on the issue and backed expanded powers for the Police Department’s civilian ombudsman. He blames the mayor for not addressing the lack of transparency earlier.

“The city views an open-records policy as a liability,” Apple says. “Every excuse has been given over the last few years by every mayor I’ve been under. … [The mayor’s] giving the same excuse as every other staffer at the city: ‘We don’t have the manpower. We don’t have the resources. Blah, blah, blah.’ If we need to redact info at the city, redact. We’re a very large city. We should know how to handle our business.”

Today, the Spokesman-Review published an article about the Spokane Police Lieutenants and Captains Association’s letter. Editor Gary Graham said in the article that the paper corrects inaccuracies when they’re made known.

“Any public agency or public information officer surely knows by now that it’s incumbent upon them to help us correct the record when necessary,” Graham was quoted as saying. “To suggest that we simply ignore complaints is absurd.”

Our own review of our 5,000-word report did reveal three mistakes:

  • In a timeline of high-profile police incidents accompanying the story, we wrote about the shooting of Sidney McDermott in 1994. The item indicated that McDermott had been shot and killed by Officer Tracie Meidl. Meidl had shot at McDermott repeatedly, but missed him. It was Officer Marc Wheelwright, not Miedl, who fatally wounded McDermott.
  • The timeline also reported on the 2007 shooting by Jay Olsen, the off-duty officer who shot Shonto Pete in the head. The item indicated that the city launched an internal investigation “soon after in response to widespread public outrage about [Olsen’s] acquittal.” It’s the city’s policy to investigate all excessive force complaints.
  • The timeline also indicated Chad Ruff was a city officer, when in fact he is employed at the Sheriff’s Office. A second mention of Ruff, however, did correctly indicate he was a deputy, rather than a city police officer.

These corrections will be printed in the July 29 edition of The Inlander. The story has already been amended online. 

The “Strong Arm of the Law” article was published as part of an ongoing series, The Injustice Project, which is committed to exposing miscarriages of justice. Send tips and story ideas to injustice@inlander.com or call the news tip line at (509) 325-0634 ext. 264.

Comments on this or other articles? Write totheeditor@inlander.com.

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