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Chief of Change 

Against history and high expectations, Frank Straub looks to reshape the Spokane Police Department

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It would seem to take a strange kind of masochist to want to assume responsibility for the Spokane Police Department.

Considered misunderstood at best and dangerous at worst, the Lilac City’s police force remains plagued by widespread public cynicism, ongoing legal entanglements and a fractured sense of purpose.

Who would be crazy enough to take on this mess?

With three brass stars on his collar and a two-month-old badge over his heart, Frank Straub can at first glance appear surly, a bit unenthusiastic. He is not an overly animated public cheerleader, wearing his passion on his sleeve. He asks engaged questions, but rarely smiles. He speaks at a deliberate, analytical pace.

Hardly unpacked in his new city, Straub brings with him broad experience in regional and federal law enforcement. He carries the title “doctor” from a Ph.D. in criminal justice. He also carries a loaded .40-caliber Glock on his hip.

Perhaps surprisingly, considering the task ahead of him, he seems of sound mind.

But before Straub could even take his oath, two potential allies — Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich and the Spokane Police Guild — had already questioned his selection as chief. City officials had eyed cuts to his budget and staffing. Union negotiations had stalled for nearly a year, and the sticky issue of marijuana legalization had gone to voters. Above all, crime rates had continued to spike within a community long estranged from its police force.

Straub took the job anyway.

On this recent afternoon, Straub has called together more than a dozen local mental health experts to discuss cross-agency partnerships. Around the conference table, he asks for their support and expertise, promising them reform in return. Hospital directors, nonprofit leaders and psychiatry professors nod along with his suggestions.

“All I hear is the department sucks at helping the homeless or the mentally ill,” Straub tells the group. “I know we don’t suck. … We need to figure this out collectively because it’s better for all of us.”

They nod again. Not one questions his sanity.

Straub knows he still has much to prove to his own officers and the city they serve. Many local leaders, weary of in-fighting and perceived institutional incompetence, have high hopes for his administration. But they also have little tolerance left for failure.

Revealing a hidden optimist, Straub says he sees only opportunity. He sees officers too long held back from the work they love. He sees a police department too long distracted by politics and tragedy. He sees a city too long divided. But, beyond that, despite its bitter and broken history, he sees a community yearning for a new direction.

“We need to change the story,” he says.

A NEW CITY

The actual Office of the Police Chief lies down a long hallway, around a few small switchbacks, against the rear wall of the Public Safety Building. Plaques and commendations line the corridors. Historic black-and-white photos pay tribute to police officers past.

Straub, 54, rocks back in his chair. His light hair is cropped short. He keeps a trim mustache. With dark, basset hound eyes, he scans the empty room as he smoothes his black tie over the front of his uniform.

He has inherited a couple of fake plants and several stacks of paperwork, but the long, blank walls make the office feel hollow. Most of his old life from Indiana remains packed in moving boxes.

“It’s very bare,” he admits with a grin. “Hopefully, in another couple weeks it will actually look like my office instead of a sterile hospital.”

Straub most recently served two years and eight months as public safety director for the city of Indianapolis. While there, he oversaw 3,500 employees citywide throughout the police, fire and other emergency service departments. He ran a $425 million budget along with policy evaluations and operational coordination for six separate divisions.

When asked why he would move to a smaller city like Spokane, Straub says he wanted a community where he could make an unmistakable impact. It’s easier to make a bigger splash in a smaller pond. The city’s mid-sized department is still flexible enough for real reform, he says, the right size to “get your arms around.”

“My original thought process in high school and college was to become a priest,” he says. “I decided not to go that direction for a bunch of reasons, but … for me, the big attraction to [law enforcement] was to really serve communities, to make communities better.”

Much of Straub’s career has focused on changing the way departments do business. More administrator than beat cop, he looks for ways to measure success. He seeks out expert advice, best practices and hard data. With help from the community, he again hopes to turn the numbers in his favor.

“We’re hungry as an organization,” he says of the Spokane Police Department, “to prove to the public again just how good we are.”

GETTING THINGS DONE

Spokane Mayor David Condon has said selecting Straub as his new police chief may be the most important decision of his first term in office. The new mayor wanted an innovator, a person who could get things done under pressure. He sought someone with expertise, tact and a strong will to succeed.

“We’ve been doing things the same way for a long time and let’s face it, our crime rate has gone up,” Condon says. “We’re frustrated with our crime rate, so it may be time to change the way we’re doing it. ... I think the community is ready to do things substantially different.”

Condon points to Straub’s many accomplishments in Indianapolis, updating hiring practices and helping drive down murder rates. In a minor logistics miracle, Straub also united local and federal emergency agencies under the roof of a single regional command center in preparation for the city’s hosting of Super Bowl XLVI.

Marc Lotter, a spokesman for Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard, says Straub brought a wealth of experience to bear on the city’s emergency services. His national perspective helped him objectively evaluate the city’s operations and replace them if necessary.

“The director did not shy away from recommending reform, which is the type of leader Mayor Ballard sought,” Lotter says. “He was also very open to challenging the status quo when it needed to be done.”

Before his time in Indianapolis, Straub served seven years as Public Safety commissioner for the city of White Plains, N.Y., where he pioneered certain community policing strategies and oversaw a 40 percent reduction in crime. The U.S. House of Representatives’ Judiciary Committee would later ask him to speak on his programs for youth assistance, prisoner re-entry and domestic violence prevention.

Straub also served as a special agent with the U.S. State Department, led security operations for the U.S. Naval Criminal Investigative Service, worked as assistant special agent in charge of the New York Field Office of the Department of Justice and deputy commissioner of training for the New York Police Department.

Now, Condon hopes Straub can apply his experience to mending the rift between the department and the Spokane community. The mayor pledges to support the chief’s efforts to expand street-level outreach and improve accountability at the department.

“There will be some naysayers out there as we work to start implementing some parts of his plan,” Condon says. “I would hope we would at least give it a try.”

COMMUNITY INVOLVEMENT 

Early this past Saturday morning, Straub and his fiancee, Amber Myers, shake hands with local Salvation Army volunteers during a program to help underprivileged children buy warm winter clothes. Sixty elementary-age kids pack a back room of the NorthTown JC Penney, each waiting for a volunteer to help them pick out $100 worth of clothes to take home with them.

Organizers pair Straub and Myers with a boy named Tallen, a quiet, blond-haired boy with a blue sweatshirt. Together the three comb the aisles of the kids clothing section, rifling through racks of jeans and trying on hats.

“You like that one?” Straub asks, leaning down to check the size on a hooded sweatshirt. Tallen nods, and the shirt goes in his shopping bag.

Straub says encouraging local officers to get re-engaged in their communities can play a huge role in shifting the department’s public image. Officers need to get back out in the city, he says, and meet citizens on a more human level.

“The night before Thanksgiving, four of us went to the Union Gospel [Mission] and served the homeless,” he says. “I think we need to be much more engaged in the community, seen as a part of the community.”

As he waits for Tallen to try on a pair of jeans, Straub talks about his own children. His 27-year-old son, Adam, works in marketing in Brooklyn. His 21-year-old daughter, Emma, attends college in Philadelphia.

Straub says he enjoys hiking, rock climbing and especially skiing with his family. He served on a ski patrol in Vermont and has visited most of the country’s premier ski resorts. He says he looks forward to taking advantage of Spokane’s proximity to the great outdoors.

He has run four marathons in his life, he says, but also remains fond of the occasional bourbon and wine, or, when he can get it, the craft beer from his favorite brewpub, Flat 12 Bierworks, in Indianapolis.

On his quieter days, he likes to read, finishing a book or two a week. He gravitates toward presidential biographies, in particular, books on Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy and Bobby Kennedy.

Myers, a straight-haired attorney originally from Michigan, says she first met Straub when he came to work for Indianapolis in 2010. Myers previously served as chief of animal care and Control for the city, submitting her resignation when Straub won the chief job.

She says they have been together since Straub announced his departure in April, sparking some controversy over whether Straub ever inappropriately served as her supervisor. She has publicly denied any prior relationship.

Walking from the children’s shoe department to the checkout line, Myers acknowledges Straub’s sometimes standoffish demeanor. She says he has a big heart, but often turns serious when considering his response to complicated questions.

“He likes to think through what he says,” she explains. “If he tells you he’s going to do something, he’s going to do it.”

CHANGING CULTURE

Community advocates have expressed strong support for Straub and his plans, but it will take more than soup kitchen visits and shopping sprees to repair years of distrust. Scandal after scandal has cut stark battle lines between officers and citizens. Debates have often descended into defensive posturing or public finger pointing.

Local activists say one of Straub’s greatest strengths is his willingness to identify and confront institutional failures. As an outsider, he can recognize deeply ingrained flaws in the department’s operations, its policies and its culture.

“Chief Straub understands that the culture of our police department must change if its officers are going to both comply with the law and earn back the trust and support of the taxpayers that hired them,” says Breean Beggs, a Spokane attorney and advocate involved in several recent legal disputes with the department. “The challenge for him will be to gain the trust of the officers on the street, that following his lead will get them more of what they want, even if they don’t quite agree with the truth about the past that he is sharing with them.”

Homeless outreach activist John “Chef Gus” Olsen says he has watched time and time again as the Spokane Police Department overstepped its bounds. Like many others, he has decried the repeated abuses of authority. The “horror stories” of overly aggressive officers go back years.

With Straub’s hire and other recent use-of-force changes to department policy, Olsen says he believes a “sea change” may have started within the police force.

“Straub looks like he’s a hard ass, and if he is, that’s great,” Olsen says. “He seems to be doing everything right.”

Center for Justice spokesman Tim Connor says Straub’s success may hinge on whether he can really reshape the philosophy at the department without losing the support of the rank and file. Reform should include strong civilian oversight, he says, along with new officer training and increased accountability.

“We don’t need another police chief in Spokane who’s just going to go along and not make waves,” Connor says. “This obviously was a time when we’re looking for somebody to be a change agent.”

Connor says Straub has made significant inroads by reaching out to local groups, but he hopes the chief possesses the will to really embrace transparency and implement new technology, such as officer body cameras, to better document controversial incidents.

“So far I’m really encouraged that he has the strength of character to hang in there and give it a try,” Connor says, adding, “I think people are understandably skeptical of anything the police department does, but at some point we have to be able to be a partner and be willing to see improvement and be able to acknowledge it.”

Connor says the chief may face opposition as he upends the status quo at the department, but those changes will win points with the community.

“I think he may become the best police chief we’ve had in recent memory,” Connor says. “I’m looking forward to working with him.”

REFOCUSING ON CRIME

Amid all of the lofty goals and community bridge-building, Straub says his highest priority remains reducing crime and improving the city’s quality of life. Spokane has endured a dramatic increase in crime in the past four years, and he hopes to refocus the department on its core mission.

Department records show violent crime has increased about 3.5 percent since 2009, including a 20 percent spike in reported robberies. Property crimes have seen runaway rate increases, rising 30 percent during that time with more than 1,700 such incidents reported this past October.

Straub says he plans to reorganize command structures and rededicate some officers to patrol next year in order to build a stronger on-the-street police presence. Turning to a community policing strategy he first implemented in White Plains, he plans to focus on either “place-based” or “individual-based” enforcement.

“About 5 percent of the criminal population are the ones really driving the crime problem,” he says. “Those are your super, highly active offenders.”

Straub plans to target those repeat offenders while also working with code enforcement and community groups to undermine locations that cultivate illegal activity, such as abandoned buildings or drug houses.

His new community policing approach will also require all officers to undergo Crisis Intervention Team training, a popular program to teach officers how to better interact with people suffering from mental health issues. He hopes to eventually link officers with local experts to form quick response teams that can be called out to incidents involving the mentally ill.

For the first time in the state’s history, law enforcement agencies will also be adjusting to the legalization of marijuana over the next year. Straub, who caused some confusion when he said he would wait for federal guidance before changing policies, now explains local efforts will largely resemble alcohol enforcement.

Most issues, such as where to grow or sell, will be city regulatory issues, he says. Officers will focus on minor possession and impaired drivers, just like alcohol. He hopes to train additional officers in drug recognition techniques to meet the new challenges of identifying stoned drivers.

“You can’t do breathalyzers,” he notes. “You have to do blood tests. So that’s where I think it could get tricky, tying up resources for much longer times than an alcohol-impaired driver.”

But he says marijuana possession enforcement has never been a high priority for the department.

“We have bigger fish to fry,” he says.

STRATEGY AND PARTNERSHIP

With 2013 approaching, Straub says he plans to release a new strategic plan by the end of the year to outline his priorities and goals. The plan will address enforcement strategies, personnel changes and other programs, such as the implementation of body cameras, which he expects the department to move toward.

He says the department will no longer keep doing things just because that’s how they have always been done.

“One of the fallacies of government is if we throw stuff on the wall and it sticks, we just run with it,” he says. “We don’t notice that some of it falls off. We don’t notice that some of it may be sticking in the wrong places.”

Assistant Police Chief Scott Stephens, a 26-year veteran of the department who served as interim chief earlier this year, says Straub has taken the time to meet with officers often and listen to their feedback. The chief has also emphasized a “laser-sharp” focus on crime reduction.

“I think he’s made a very favorable impression on the rank and file,” Stephens says.” He has a real wealth of knowledge on policing models. We’re all really excited about that.”

Straub says he has met several times with Guild leaders. He believes everyone in the department can rally around the desire to move forward together. He says he also hopes to collaborate with other public safety agencies.

Sheriff Knezovich previously opposed Straub’s hire, arguing for consolidation of the Spokane Police Department under the Sheriff’s Office. In August, he said Spokane is “not the place to come learn how to be a chief.”

After meeting Straub, Knezovich now says he looks forward to building a regional partnership with the chief and working toward several common goals. But he still thinks Straub has a difficult road ahead to rebuild public trust.

“I think there’s a ton of expectations on Frank,” he says.

Former Spokane Police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick says Straub has taken important first steps toward repairing the department’s reputation. She notes she faced a “perfect storm” of public and internal criticism during her tenure, but says much of that has died down as Straub looks to take over the department.

“Spokane has really gone through some trying times,” she says. “I think everyone is showing the signs of being ready to move forward. I think he has a wonderful opportunity. The timing is really good for him.”

HEAVY BURDENS

Back in his empty office, Straub says he plans to hang up several personal photos to serve as reminders of the awesome responsibility he bears as police chief. Each photo carries a certain lesson, inspiration or warning.

One photo depicts Indianapolis Police Officer David Moore, who was killed in the line of duty early last year. Straub, who has grown close to Moore’s parents, says the death left a lasting impression.

“When you’re the chief of police,” he says, “I think you realize the weight of the obligation you have to make sure all of your employees go home to their families. ... It’s very important for me never to forget David’s sacrifice to the city of Indianapolis and to the policing profession.”

Another photo in his office will show President Kennedy hunched over his desk during the Cuban Missile Crisis, a symbol of the implications of every decision.

But in his first months, Straub has put up just one photo so far. On the wall opposite his desk, hangs a somber, black-and-white photo of emergency workers on Sept. 11, 2001.

Straub worked just two blocks from the Twin Towers that day. He saw the second plane strike. He took cover behind a fire engine as the towers collapsed.

“After living through Sept. 11, I’m not really afraid of too much,” he says now. “The one thing that you realize when you come through an event like that is that you can’t really control life. Shit happens, and it’s really about how you deal with shit when it happens.”

A NEW DIRECTION

Just a month into his new job, Straub did something that could be considered a little crazy. In contrast to years of excuses and outright cover-up, he rose to meet his loudest critics head-on.

Approximately 200 local activists, nonprofit representatives and justice advocates had gathered Nov. 9 for the city’s first Smart Justice Symposium. Otto Zehm’s legacy hung heavy in the air, his death at the hands of Spokane officers still a painful reminder of the department’s every betrayal.

Stepping to the podium, Straub mispronounces “Spo-Kane,” but quickly corrects himself. He shares stories of many successful mental health treatment programs and nonprofit partnerships. He stresses the importance of community involvement.

As he nears the end of his speech, he acknowledges the sorrow of Zehm’s death, the “elephant in the room.” He talks about learning from tragedy, finding new strength in cooperation. He asks not just for trust, but for help.

“We have too many people in this community that we owe it to to be successful,” he tells them. “We can’t have another Otto Zehm case in Spokane. We’re too good for that. We’re too good for that as a community and we’re too good for that as a police department.”

Straub’s voice swells louder and faster. The room goes quiet.

“We will work with anybody that wants to work with us,” he says. “We will listen to your criticism. We will listen to your ideas. ... Let’s figure out how to move forward.”

Crowded around small tables, the cynical audience listens intently as his bright aspirations fill the conference hall. After six long years of fear and animosity, maybe they were ready for something a little crazy, even borderline delusional: hope.

“Let’s heal,” he says finally. “Let’s move forward and let’s be a better community. Thank you.”

As his voice fades, the cynics rise from their chairs to a standing ovation. Their applause fills the hall, ringing on for nearly a half-minute as he descends from the stage, optimistic he has taken his first steps in a new direction. 

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