Tuesday, February 25, 2014

SPD Ombud outlines police progress, challenges in 2013 report

Posted By on Tue, Feb 25, 2014 at 2:51 PM

In his fifth annual report to city officials, Spokane Police Ombudsman Tim Burns outlined a variety of new programs, encouraging statistics and stubborn challenges facing the Spokane Police Department throughout its first full year of transition and reform under Police Chief Frank Straub.

Burns, who has served as ombudsman since 2009, describes 2013 as a period of realignment, reinvestment and retrospection. The department tightened some standards on reporting incidents, instituted new training and made important progress toward overdue reforms.

"There's a lot of changes that have gone on in the last year," Burns tells the Inlander.

click to enlarge Tim Burns - YOUNG KWAK
Young Kwak
Tim Burns

The 2013 annual report, released Monday night, states SPD officers made contact with more than 135,700 people throughout the year, resulting in more than 10,650 arrests, more than twice the 4,226 arrests of 2012. Officers also issued 10,594 citations last year, down from nearly 13,000 in 2012. Burns' office also saw a 38 percent increase in contacts with citizens, rising from 909 to 1,252 contacts last year.

With those additional officer contacts, Burns argues SPD officers have had the opportunity to be more proactive in their enforcement and investigation. The city has recently reported significant decreases in crime after a year under the CompStat targeted "hot-spot" strategy.

But Burns notes arrest numbers also reveal potential racial disparities in local policing, which he says he's never observed during dozens of SPD ridealongs, however, "the numbers say different."

Census data shows nearly 87 percent of Spokane residents are white, but only 80 percent of SPD arrests are white suspects. Meanwhile, African Americans make up just 2.3 percent of the population, but 9 percent of arrests. Native Americans similarly represent 2 percent of residents, but 8 percent of arrests.

"African Americans and Native Americans are arrested in far greater number than they represent [in the community]," he says, adding, "It re-enforces what I think a lot of us knew. … [But] those numbers are wake-up calls."

Burns also noted a dramatic increase in "no response" calls, which are 911 calls that police supervisors clear from dispatch without sending an officer. Those calls are either determined to not require an officer response, or they come in when the department has no officers to spare.

"I'm of the belief that if somebody calls the police, the police should respond," Burns says.

Those "no response" calls went from 8,701 calls in 2012 up to 10,387 last year. Burns says he has been told it's a matter of supervisors managing calls more efficiently, but he says more calls should warrant some response.

Here are several other findings from the 2013 annual report:

• 95 citizen complaints were assigned for investigation, compared to 62 in 2012.

• Of those complaints, 12 were allegations of excessive force. Of those allegations, none were sustained and three remain under investigation.

• 14 SPD employees were disciplined on 16 violations. Discipline ranged from oral counseling to "last chance" agreements. No terminations occurred.

• The SPD reported 147 instances in which officers used force, ranging from pressure holds to fatal shootings. The SPD had three fatal officer-involved shootings in 2013.

• SPD officers used their tasers 32 times last year, down from 38 times in 2012.

• The SWAT team was activated 50 times, down from 54 times in 2012.

• SPD officers were in 58 vehicle collisions, including one officer who had five collisions. Of all collisions, 16 were later found to be preventable.

Burns also submitted recommendations for the new year. He would like to see the SPD move out of the county's Public Safety Building into a newer, more accessible building. He argues the current building is hidden away and keeps officers behind metal detectors. The city also pays nearly $400,000 in annual rent for a building they don't own.

Burns argues Neighborhood Conditions Officers, assigned to neighborhoods to work with residents, should receive the same 3-percent specialty pay that many other positions receive.

He would also like to see the city post all litigation settlement records online for better public access and transparency.

As the SPD moves forward, Burns says he would also like to see more progress on the introduction of body cameras, which he describes as a "game changer" in police accountability. He says smaller, neighboring jurisdictions have managed to figure out how to adopt the technology must faster than the Spokane department.

"[Body cameras] have been purchased," he says. "They're sitting somewhere and they're ready to be used. … I'm just a little frustrated with the time that it's taken."

Overall, Burns says he's hopeful with the direction of the department and he thanks city officials for their support and additional funding for 25 new police officers in the coming year. He says the department's changes have been good, but he's looking forward to some steady, stable progress in 2014.

Read the entire 2013 Annual Report.

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About The Author

Jacob Jones

Staff writer Jacob Jones covers criminal justice, natural resources, military issues and organized labor for the Inlander.