Right on Oversight

by Tim Connor & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & I & lt;/span & t's probably unfair to Anne Kirkpatrick that our memory of Otto Zehm follows her around. But it doesn't surprise her. Spokane's new police chief says that when she applied for the job, she understood that citizens were demanding a more active role in overseeing the conduct of Spokane Police officers. Zehm's senseless death and the videotape that largely refuted the police account of what happened to him last winter clearly had touched a nerve.

To Kirkpatrick's credit, she's already taken steps to improve the flow of police information to news reporters. But the more difficult step is the next one. Kirkpatrick agrees that the current citizen oversight process for reviewing complaints against police officers needs to be overhauled. In late January, she announced that she'd hired Sam Pailca, the director of the Office of Professional Accountability for the Seattle Police Department, to assist her in shaping a new proposal for external review.

Getting police oversight to work is tough everywhere, but there are some special challenges to getting it to work in Spokane. To be blunt, much of the problem is with the hardened attitude of the police and their defenders in and out of City Hall. It's a problem with deep roots. When I was assigned to investigate complaints of police brutality for Spokane Magazine in 1981, my editors and I were amazed by the recalcitrance of the SPD. We were completely stonewalled and then lectured about how the problem wasn't violent cops but the people who complained about them. (Or tried to complain. One of the things we documented is just how difficult it was to even file a complaint.)

When, finally, a citizen oversight board was set up in the early '90s, the department resisted the initiative and two police unions swiftly took legal action to block the panel from doing its work. Consequently, the panel was downsized and the city code rewritten to restrict its role.

Perhaps the most telling case is that of Chrys Ostrander, an organic farmer from Lincoln County who was subdued and badly injured in front of his family by a Spokane detective during an unlawful arrest in 1997. A majority of the citizen review panelists found he'd been the victim of excessive force. But rather than pursuing charges against the detective, the city attorney's office pressed claims against Ostrander for -- get this -- defamation and malicious prosecution. The claims were later dismissed, and the city quietly settled

Ostrander's claim with a $20,000 payment.

The other part of the problem is, well, us. Spokane's ingrained distrust of reformers gives the political edge to people who would rather not ask the hard questions. This weakness warps a lot of things, but it poses special problems for dealing with a dilemma that every city has to manage: How do you support police officers while insisting that they exercise restraint and allow the courts to mete out punishment? There's no doubt that Spokane has many exemplary police officers. But no police department is immune from a (usually) small number of rogue cops who abuse their authority and then rely on the loyalty of their brethren to protect them. A city of Spokane's size really has no choice. It has to be committed both to supporting its police officers and to holding them accountable.

Kirkpatrick is already showing that she won't shrink from the internal oversight that's necessary to maintain professionalism and accountability. We should support her in this, because a solid internal affairs process is the most direct approach to improving the department's performance and credibility. But the external review process -- no matter which model Spokane adopts -- has to be credible too.

To be credible, it has to be transparent. My concern is that it won't be. Washington has a good open-meetings law and one of the nation's best public records laws. And yet, police departments and unions have put enormous pressure on external review bodies to meet behind closed doors and keep records sealed. In Spokane, our city code requires members of the existing citizen review board to sign a contract to keep records secret. In Seattle, the civilian review panel is undermined by a longstanding dispute over whether the civilian reviewers should even have access to uncensored police files.

But the law is on the side of openness. The state Supreme Court has given broad discretion to police agencies to withhold investigative records in unsolved cases. But it has also ruled that when it comes to "privacy" rights asserted by public officials (including police officers), the public interest in accountability must prevail over claims of privacy.

As to why transparency is important, it shouldn't take a tutorial in recent history to remind people. Journalism in Spokane plays a crucial role in terms of what people get to know (and don't get to know) about how things work. Reporters don't always get to the truth -- or get there as quickly as we'd like. But when agencies or review boards look for creative ways to keep reporters and the public out, they so undermine their credibility that it's hardly worth the work and expense of having them meet.

Otto Zehm's death was one of those deep tragedies that defy restitution. But that is not to say we shouldn't try. If the city and its new police chief respond in ways that make it less likely that others will be hurt or killed due to mistakes and excessive force by Spokane police officers, then at least something good will have come of this.

Tim Connor is a Spokane writer and consultant. His in-depth investigation into excessive force by Spokane police appeared in the June 1981 edition of Spokane Magazine.