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Confidence? 

A Spokane police vote shows a lack of trust in top cops

click to enlarge Spokane Police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick
  • Spokane Police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick

A vote taken last month by members of the Spokane Police Guild found that a majority — “a supermajority,” according to the union’s president — have no confidence in the leadership of the city’s top cops.

Or does it?

Guild president Detective Ernie Wuthrich says he won’t reveal the exact breakdown of the balloting — not how many votes were cast, not the total cast for no-confidence and not how many ballots were returned blank as an apparent protest of the vote. Not to media, not to city leaders.

“The mayor wanted to know. I haven’t even told her,” Wuthrich says in a Sunday telephone interview.

The Guild has 268 members and turnout for this vote, conducted between March 15-19, was high, Wuthrich says.

“When you won’t even reveal your numbers, that says a lot,” Chief Anne Kirkpatrick says outside the City Council chambers Monday evening. “When they won’t even reveal the vote to my boss [Mayor Mary Verner] in the privacy of her office … what does that say? I do not consider this a vote of no confidence.”

Kirkpatrick is one of the candidates for the open Seattle police chief job who’s getting a lot of early buzz. The timing of the vote “is meant to hurt me with Seattle.”

Wuthrich says the vote was not against Kirkpatrick herself, but as reflected in the ballot title, it polled Guild members on their confidence in the leadership and decision-making coming from the office of the chief — which includes Kirkpatrick and Assistant Chief Jim Nicks.

Wuthrich won’t release exact ballot numbers, he says, because he doesn’t want Guild membership to seize upon the details and become further fractured.

“I’m trying to hold this union together. Morale is bad,” Wuthrich says.

There has been division in the police force for many years, long predating Kirkpatrick’s arrival in September 2006, both the chief and Wuthrich say.

Kirkpatrick arrived in the wake of the Otto Zehm tragedy. (The 36-year-old janitor, mistakenly suspected of robbery, died after an extended brawl with police.) She vowed to bring transparency, accountability and swift discipline.

One of her first initiatives was to bring in a different agency to investigate police after such high-profile incidents, a measure the Guild supported, Wuthrich says.

He and the chief note that the new policy was not completed by the time the next outrage blew up: Jay Olson, drunk and off-duty, chased Shonto Pete through downtown and shot him in the head.

Kirkpatrick called on County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich to investigate, which created turmoil and confusion.

The Guild likes and supports the new protocol, Wuthrich says, but its abrupt and unilateral installation in the middle of an officer-involved shooting before the plan was even completed created turmoil and revealed the chief’s tendency to be “impatient,” as he puts it.

The Guild has filed seven unfair labor practices against police administration, Wuthrich says, and members were discussing a no-confidence vote as early as January 2009. He says he briefed Kirkpatrick on the mood of the union and forestalled the vote in order to try and address the issue internally.

“Morale is at an all-time low because of these things that I mentioned,” Wuthrich says. “A lot of these things have to do with trust. If we trust a leader, it has to be a leader that doesn’t kick us to the curb.”

Kirkpatrick calls the timing of the Guild vote suspicious, coming in the weeks after she announced her candidacy in Seattle.

“I am not going to change the mission and direction of the department [because] some people don’t like change,” she says.

Wuthrich and Kirkpatrick, in their separate interviews, each expressed a desire for a more unified force.

“This could turn out to be the healthiest thing for the department. It’s forcing us to have a conversation about where do we stand? Do we want to continue to be divided internally?” Kirkpatrick asks.

For his part, Wuthrich says, “We are eager to follow the legal processes to make changes that will better the department. We need a leader who will take the time and is willing to follow procedures.

“We want this place to get better, and we want a leader we can trust,” Wuthrich says.

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