Turnout was so sparse at a recent city forum on police oversight that Chief Anne Kirkpatrick expressed dismay when she opened the meeting: "We expected a lot more people."
A few days later Mayor Dennis Hession listed the cutting of $1 million in his state of the city address.
So the question arises: Absent outraged citizens bearing torches and pitchforks, and with a budget that is shrinking, who will champion meaningful police oversight?
It could be the chief herself. Kirkpatrick has hired Seattle attorney Sam Pailca to recommend police oversight models for Spokane and, the chief adds, she wants to be able to present options to the City Council soon.
A couple of factors are driving her zeal, Kirkpatrick says. She was hired last year in the wake of several high-profile messes made by the SPD, the most tragic being the death of janitor Otto Zehm, who was mistakenly believed to have been involved in a robbery and who died after a lengthy fight with officers and being left in restraints on the floor of a mini-mart.
Then, shortly after she was hired, Kirkpatrick forwarded a citizen complaint about officer conduct to the largely moribund Citizen Review Commission. She seemed genuinely embarrassed when the commission declared its own toothlessness by citing its own ordinances to say it couldn't review the matter.
"That's a good place to start -- when your chief and the citizens are saying this isn't what we had in mind," says Pailca, who just completed the maximum of six years as director of the Office of Professional Accountability in Seattle.
Terry Sloyer, attorney at the Center for Justice representing Zehm's family, says she's confident the process of creating a new citizen oversight entity will continue: "One, I think Otto Zehm will keep it on the map. Two, I think the chief is committed to having oversight," Sloyer says.
In addition to attending the city forums, Pailca has also attended meetings on the topic sponsored by the ACLU. She expects to have a final report -- detailing a range of oversight models and listing pros and cons of each -- by the end of March, Pailca says.
Kirkpatrick is then expected to present findings to the City Council by mid-April.
Two factors to watch in the coming weeks:
One -- Kirkpatrick says she doesn't want an entity that has its own investigative authority. Advocates like Sloyer and Pierce Murphy, the president of the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law
Enforcement, insist such independence is critical to building public trust.
Two -- Budget support from the city. Pailca says she will likely include a volunteer model in her report but warns, "You get what you pay for." City
Council President Joe Shogan adds the process is too important to be derailed by tight budgets: "The existence of an effectual police oversight committee is very important to the police department and the citizens of Spokane."