Sex. Violence. Transparency. Race. How is the Spokane Police Department doing under Chief Craig Meidl?

click to enlarge Craig Meidl at the Aug. 1, 2016, press conference where the mayor announced he would be Spokane's new police chief. - YOUNG KWAK
Young Kwak
Craig Meidl at the Aug. 1, 2016, press conference where the mayor announced he would be Spokane's new police chief.

Craig Meidl didn't get any honeymoon from the community. The moment he was named Spokane's new police chief in August 2016, the announcement was met with shock and outrage. A "back door appointment," one community activist complained. A slap in the face, said another.

Part of the issue was the fact that Meidl, a longtime veteran of the department, said he didn't want the job and, as a result, hadn't applied for it or been subjected to the same interviews and the public scrutiny that two finalists for the job endured.

Besides, there was Meidl's history of supporting disgraced Spokane cop Karl Thompson, who was sent to federal prison in connection with the 2006 beating death of an unarmed disabled man. Meidl had been one of the officers who stood and saluted Thompson in the courtroom after the guilty verdict was read.

City leaders and activists wondered if Mayor David Condon's surprise pick was really the guy who could bring stability to the department. SPD was still reeling from the chaotic tenure of the previous chief, Frank Straub, who was ousted in September 2015 amid concerns about his divisive management style as well as allegations of sexual harassment.

"There had been a crisis of leadership at the very top," says Jim McDevitt, a former U.S. Attorney who Condon brought in to temporarily run the department after Straub was forced to resign.

Fast forward to now: At the end of this month, Mayor-elect Nadine Woodward will take over City Hall and, with it, oversight of Meidl. She declined to comment on whether she planned to keep Meidl or any of the current city-department heads. However, the Inlander spoke with elected officials, former cops, law enforcement experts, community advocates and Meidl himself to assess how the department is faring under his leadership.

It's a mixed bag of sorts. Many say Meidl has stabilized the department after the Straub scandal and credit him with reform-minded initiatives like pairing mental health professionals with patrol officers to get people help and keep them out of jail. But controversy continues to dominate the headlines.

Last month, an officer was charged with rape after allegedly sexually assaulting a victim of a domestic violence crime that the officer was investigating. The month before, Meidl and the department brass faced withering criticism for defending an officer who shouted profanity-laden threats and sicced a police dog on a suspect who appeared to be surrendering.

"It's been a fast three years and it's been a long three years," Meidl tells the Inlander in a recent interview. "We're continuing to learn, we're continuing to grow."

BUILDING BRIDGES

When asked about Meidl's tenure, observers frequently point to his approachable personality and efforts at proactive outreach with the community. Meidl himself says it's a high priority for him.

"When I took over the position, one of the priorities for me was connecting with the community, building bridges with the community. There had been some turmoil, obviously, with the transition from the prior chief," Meidl says. "I felt like we really needed to engage with the community and make sure we were out in the community."

Rick Eichstaedt, the former director of the nonprofit Center for Justice, says that Straub projected a "it's my way or the highway" attitude, while Meidl brings a more accessible and collaborative temperament to the job.

"Craig seems like he is open to new ideas, he is very approachable," he says. "He has a very different demeanor."

While Straub started several programs like the Police Activities League — which organizes summer activities like basketball games to foster trust between cops and youth — city leaders and other officials say that Meidl doubled down on intensive community outreach and has fostered that attitude among his subordinates.

"The Police Activities League and the youth police interactions program — those started before him, but he has kept them well-resourced," says City Councilman Breean Beggs.

Kurtis Robinson, president of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP, says that Meidl and his command staff have been proactive about reaching out to him and other community members for feedback on various issues, such as how to recruit more officers of color or their youth programming.

"More than a handful of times I have been approached by Chief Meidl and his staff about what they need to do to engage communities of color," he says. "They have really ramped up their level of collaborative community engagement."

He adds that he regularly gets phone calls from either Meidl or his direct subordinates notifying him when there is a police shooting involving a person of color.

Similarly, after Spokane police officers shot seven people in 2017 — three of whom were Native American — the department signed a memorandum of understanding to establish lines of communication with the local Native American community.

"I think he's fairly diligent about making those calls," says NATIVE Project CEO Toni Lodge, who helped craft that agreement.

In 2018, the department conducted a survey of local residents to gauge its public standing. An estimated 87 percent of respondents agreed that the police department was successfully working to improve its relationship with city residents. That's up from 56 percent when a 2015 survey asked the same question.

"It was already on the upswing, but overall the public confidence in the police department has risen," Beggs says.

SEX AND COPS

Spokane Police Officer Nathan Nash was charged with rape in November after he allegedly sexually assaulted a domestic violence victim involved in a case he was investigating. (Through a lawyer, Nash has denied the allegations of sexual assault.) Investigators also found that Nash had a "common practice" of giving out his personal cell phone number to other victims.

The allegations made against Nash come after a string of cases involving Spokane cops accused of sexual misconduct. In 2018, a jury convicted former Sgt. Gordon Ennis of rape for sexually assaulting another police officer in 2015. And in early 2016, an officer was suspended for having a consensual yet inappropriate sexual relationship with a woman days after he took a domestic violence report from her.

"Our organization is concerned with the pattern of behavior that we've seen from the Spokane Police Department officers over the last several years," Mariah McKay, a member of the Spokane chapter of the National Organization for Women, tells the Inlander. "The frequency of these incidents should be cause for concern and is indicative of a culture that needs to change."

The incidents raise questions about the internal culture of the department, and whether it tolerates sexual harassment and misconduct. Research indicates that sexual misconduct — ranging from consensual on-duty sex to rape — is common within law enforcement agencies nationwide.

"It's a pretty egregious act for these types of allegations to be coming forward on a regular basis," McKay says. "The repeated, different scenarios cannot be ignored as just a few bad apples."

Meidl denies that the internal culture of the department suffers from issues with sexism or misogyny.

"Do I feel that there is a gender bias or anything like that? I don't believe there is," he says. "I think we have some officers and allegations of officers engaging in inappropriate conduct that absolutely nobody could have predicted."

When asked by the Inlander if he is taking any specific measures in response to the incidents, Meidl says he plans to meet with staff from the YWCA to discuss potential next steps.

"My quest is to determine: Is there more we should be doing based on their expertise, and what is that?" he says. "I definitely think that there is more that we need to do, undoubtedly."

Meidl adds that all new officers participate in city-mandated sexual harassment training during their orientation. In 2017, all officers received additional sexual harassment training.

McKay says that sexual harassment training is the "bare minimum" and the incidents show that the department would benefit from specialized trainings regarding gender, power dynamics, rape and sexual assault. "It's much more complicated than, 'Don't hit on your co-workers,'" she says.

Penny Harrington, former chief of the Portland Police Bureau and founding director of the National Center for Women and Policing, argues that the fact that law enforcement agencies are male-dominated contributes heavily to how departments view sexual harassment and misconduct.

"The gender composition really has an effect," she says. "You have to have a certain percentage of a minority in the majority group before they have any power or an effect on culture."

Harrington points to the Madison Police Department in Wisconsin, where about 30 percent of the officers are women. And it's been that way for almost two decades.

In contrast, only an estimated 9.6 percent of the uniformed officers in the Spokane Police Department are women, according to a 2016 report from the city's Gender and Race Pay Equity Taskforce.

Joe Walker, a former lieutenant who retired in 2017 after 29 years with the department, says the agency is "absolutely" a tough work environment for women because it is male-dominated. He thinks the department could do more to encourage women to rise up the ranks.

"It doesn't seem like there's the push or encouragement," he says.

Meidl argues that there aren't many women who take promotional exams nor are there many women in the department as a whole. He says the reasons that people don't take the civil service exam to become sergeants are varied, including the high likelihood of working graveyard and the added responsibility of being a supervisor.

As for efforts to diversify the department, Meidl says that the department has been targeting universities and military bases and female-only job fairs to try to recruit more women and people of color. The department is also offering classes specifically for women that cover defensive tactics and stressors that female officers face on the job.

"We're really pushing hard to get a diverse agency," he says. "So far, I would say it's working. We've got at least four females that will be going through the academy."

But Meidl stresses that, ultimately, his department can only do so much to identify bad cops before they act out, and that officers like Ennis are not reflective of the department's culture.

"Despite everything we do, there are going to be people that will exercise that free will and engage in behavior that isn't appropriate," he says. "I look at the Ennis thing, that is not a symptom of the Spokane Police Department. That is a symptom of the character of that individual who happened to be employed by the Spokane Police Department."

click to enlarge Jae Dobbs, a mental health clinician with Frontier Behavioral Health, and SPD Officer Joe Dunsmoor working as one of the department's co-deployed teams. - YOUNG KWAK
Young Kwak
Jae Dobbs, a mental health clinician with Frontier Behavioral Health, and SPD Officer Joe Dunsmoor working as one of the department's co-deployed teams.

OVERSIGHT AND ACCOUNTABILITY

In May, Police Ombudsman Bart Logue — the department's official watchdog — was tipped off by a local blogger and former cop, Brian Breen, about a controversial arrest from February. Body camera footage would later reveal how Officer Dan Lesser screamed threats like "I'm going to f—-ing kill you" and hoisted a police dog into a truck cabin where it attacked a suspect who appeared to be surrendering.

When Logue found out that the case wasn't being investigated by Internal Affairs, he criticized the department brass in an email for not informing him about the incident or opening up a formal inquiry into potential misconduct — a process that Logue, by rule, is allowed to participate in. Logue eventually filed a complaint, triggering an investigation.

Some critics argue that the way the case was handled is indicative of a broader issue in the police department: By keeping controversial cases away from Internal Affairs — handling them instead with a "chain of command" review — the ombudsman can be kept in the dark.

"Not disclosing the Lesser video to the ombudsman promptly was part of the larger pattern and policy that is going on right now. It's just a very disturbing manifestation of it," Beggs says. "This practice of simply not telling the ombudsman and then we wait for Brian Breen to tell us about it, that seems very demoralizing for the community."

At the time, Meidl pointed to the fact that the department was already conducting a chain-of-command review of the incident — a process where supervisors and command staff assess whether an officer's conduct fell within policy — as evidence that the department was handling the matter. In an interview for this story, the chief says there was no effort to undermine oversight of the controversial arrest.

"[Officers] don't get a free pass just because it's within the chain-of-command review," Meidl says. "The documentation in [department records] before this became Internal Affairs will show that that was not the case. There were policy violations identified."

Ultimately, Lesser was cited for not turning on his body camera sooner and for his demeanor, but not his decision to sic a canine on the suspect. He received a one-day suspension. Meidl says that his decision to issue a one-day suspension took into account the fact that Lesser didn't have any prior demeanor violations.

Meidl also argues that factoring in all the context of the arrest is important when evaluating Lesser's conduct: The suspect was wanted on several felony warrants, including unlawful possession of a firearm, and had led officers on a car chase before he was pinned in a snowbank. He also told Lesser that he had a pistol during the arrest. No gun was recovered, however.

"This was not a random traffic stop. This was a very specific person that was very dangerous and said he had a gun twice," Meidl says. "It does not seem to resonate how dangerous this person is. At some level I'm wondering, do people care about the officer's safety?"

The decision not to open up an Internal Affairs investigation into the arrest wasn't unusual, Meidl says. The department routinely uses its discretion to determine whether a given case rises to the level of excessive force and an Internal Affairs investigation.

"To say this was an anomaly is not correct," Meidl says. "I don't know why there is a statement that we're somehow doing something different on this one when this is how it's been."

Logue, the ombudsman, continues to argue that the current system is flawed and doesn't guarantee scrutiny into potential police misconduct. He argues that if staff within the department flag force as inappropriate, it should be investigated by Internal Affairs. Logue also points out that several supervisors thought Lesser's use of the police dog violated departmental policy.

"If a supervisor says it's wrong, it should be looked at," Logue says. "If there is perceived misconduct, it should be in Internal Affairs. It should be investigated by someone who is not in the person's chain of command. That's the standard in policing."

Councilman Beggs argues that the department should start proactively informing the ombudsman of potentially serious incidents, regardless of whether they get investigated by Internal Affairs or not. He thinks that the procedure wouldn't violate the existing police contract.

"There's nothing that prevents the police department from volunteering information to the ombudsman's office about matters they're looking into," he says. "My proposal is, 'You do what you want on Internal Affairs, Chief, because those are your resources. But the net for notifying the ombudsman should be very wide.'"

But Meidl argues that the ordinance doesn't explicitly give him authority to inform the ombudsman of incidents and that doing so may run afoul of labor law. He also says that the ordinance doesn't give the ombudsman any role in the department's chain-of-command review process. He also adds that the ombudsman is invited to attend monthly use-of-force review board meetings where incidents are scrutinized.

"He does not have a role to play in the use-of-force reviews, per the ordinance," Meidl says of the ombudsman. "It's ultimately going to be the city that will pay for any damages if we commit an unfair labor practice.

"I am bound to follow labor law," Meidl adds. "It's a fact. And that's been the biggest crux of where our disagreements have come from."

McDevitt, the former U.S. Attorney who briefly led the police department after Straub, says that Meidl has multiple constituencies that he balances at any one time. "He's got the public pulling in one direction, he's got the [union] pulling in another direction, he's got the ombudsman," he says. "He's trying to keep all these balls in the air."

Notably, while the chief reassigned Lesser to a plain-clothes investigative detail after the controversial arrest, Meidli says Lesser could possibly return to patrol at some point.

"He has to get off patrol for a while," he says of Lesser. "He has to recharge his batteries."

James Sweetser, a local attorney who represented the family of a man who was shot and killed by Lesser in 2011, James Rogers, says that the city is risking lawsuits by keeping him on the street. Lesser has been involved in five shootings since he joined the department in 1995.

"This is occurring too frequently. It's starting to be a pattern. It's starting to be people losing their lives," he says. Sweetser adds that there's plenty of other positions that Lesser could be placed in rather than patrol.

"He could be a detective," he says. "He could be doing something else than be in these high-danger situations where he appears to have a history of escalating situations and being more than willing to shoot."

Camerina Zorrozua, a staff attorney at the Center for Justice, says that Meidl's statements defending Lesser's behavior are troubling, as well as the finding that the use of the police dog was within policy.

"It feels like there was an absence of true leadership in a moment where we were looking to someone like Meidl to play that role," she says. "If this is going to be how he carries out these duties, I don't have much faith in him as chief."

The department also took criticism back in October for changing its internal policy for how use-of-force cases get referred to Internal Affairs. The change effectively removed a requirement that supervisors must initiate Internal Affairs investigations whenever concerns arose about a possible use-of-force violation. Logue slammed the change as an "egregious" step backward.

Meidl argued it was to keep minor policy violations from getting tied up in formal investigations. However, after hearing the criticism, Meidl says that he told his staff to strip the new language from the department policy.

Broadly, Meidl says that the current police oversight system is working effectively: "From my perspective, yes, I am content with the current arrangement with civilian oversight."

But the recent measures taken by Meidl don't entirely address concerns that problematic incidents could be kept from the ombudsman and, ultimately, the public.

"Everyone is wondering, 'What else aren't we hearing about?'" Beggs says.

RACIAL BIAS

Spokane cops disproportionately contact, arrest and use force on non-white residents, according to the department's own data.

The city is 85 percent white, roughly 2 percent black, and around 2 percent Native American, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. However, in 2018, while 70 percent of civilians subjected to force by Spokane police officers were white, another 13 percent were black, and 8 percent were Native American, according to the department's annual use-of-force report. Those disparities have fluctuated but stayed significant over the past few years.

Similarly, a 2015 study conducted by Dr. Edward Byrnes at Eastern Washington University found that 6 percent of civilians contacted by Spokane officers were black while 3 percent were Native American. The margin grew when it came to the demographics of civilians who were arrested: Black people consisted of roughly 10 percent of arrested civilians while Native Americans amounted to 7 percent. An updated version of the study released in 2017 using more data showed similar disparities. Additionally, three of the seven people shot by Spokane cops in 2017 were Native American.

For Center for Justice attorney Zorrozua, the fact the numbers are consistent over the years shows the department that isn't doing enough to address racial disproportionality in local policing.

"When we actually start looking at what's gone on since he's taken this position, many of the concerns are still there," she says of Meidl. "I'm concerned that internally it's not a priority."

"Really, the needle has not moved on use-of-force," Toni Lodge of the NATIVE Project adds. "We worry about our kids and our grandsons and our sons."

She adds that at local Native American community meetings, people routinely bring up concerns about getting profiled by the police: "The community says, 'We've got to do something here' and 'I'm tired of walking to the 7-Eleven and getting stopped or my son getting stopped.'"

Meidl says that the department is working to address the issue by requiring implicit bias training for its officers, as well as inviting leaders from marginalized communities — including Lodge — to speak to officers about their experiences with police bias. They also are collecting data on self-initiated officer contacts with non-white individuals to help gauge bias among patrol offcers.

But he also argues that some demographics commit crimes at higher rates and are therefore overrepresented in policing data.

"When you're looking at violent crime in the city of Spokane, over 30 percent of our homicides in the last six years have been committed by African Americans. They make up 2.5 percent of the population," he says. "But 17 percent, over the last two years, of my aggravated assaults, as reported by the community, have been committed by African Americans. Over 10 percent of my rapes, 10 percent of my robberies.

"This is not just us randomly going out and randomly putting those demographics in the box," Meidl adds.

However, research disputes the argument that racial disparities in policing data stem from disparate crime rates. A 2016 study from the Center for Policing Equity analyzing data from 12 police departments across the country found that racial disparities in police use-of-force persist even when controlling for racial distributions in local arrests. Additionally, several studies have found that black motorists are more likely to be searched than their white counterparts despite the fact that white drivers are more likely to possess weapons or illicit drugs.

Zorrozua objects to Meidl's argument that racial disproportionality is the result of disparate crime rates.

"Those tropes have been around for a long time," she says. "It perpetuates certain biases and stereotypes about people of color."

DIALING BACK THE WARRIOR COP

When it comes to recalibrating the department to embrace the reality that cops frequently serve as the de-facto first response to behavioral health issues like drug addiction and mental health problems, some observers give Meidl and the Spokane Police Department gold stars.

For instance, Meidl, at least initially, worked collaboratively with Ombudsman Logue to develop its new use-of-force policy, which included new sections encouraging officers to use "time and distance" to de-escalate situations, as well as a mandate that deadly force should only be used as a "last resort."

"We went after force as one of the first big things that we wanted to try and impact during my tenure here. And that's a hard one," Logue says. "When I talk with my colleagues around the country, they say, 'Pick the low hanging fruit.' Force is not the low hanging fruit. It's a hard one to deal with because you're trying to balance community safety with officer safety."

"For me, I don't want us to fall behind in areas that are best practices," Meidl says. "You have to stay progressive, you have to look at best practices. What was a best practice two years ago or three years ago may not be a best practice any more."

Additionally, the department has embraced its Community Diversion Unit, which pairs grant-funded mental health workers with patrol officers to help get people into treatment and shelter rather than jail, as well as mandated 40 hours of crisis-intervention training for all officers. The department's senior staff has also been through motivational interviewing training.

"I honestly don't believe that there is a comparable agency of their size doing as much in this realm," says Steve James, an assistant research professor at Washington State University who works on policing issues. "That's a significant investment for an agency of their size.

"The city has got a police force that truly does want to embrace what is out there in the policing world, whether it is the way they teach defensive tactics or crisis intervention or communication styles," he adds. "Craig is facilitating this." ♦

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Josh Kelety is a staff writer covering Spokane County government and criminal justice issues. He's written about how jails are dealing with the opioid crisis, a local addiction counselor who led a double life as a drug dealer, and the ways that telecom corporations profit off of prison inmates. He can be reached at joshk@inlander.com or at 325-0634 ext. 237.

About The Author

Josh Kelety

As a staff writer, Josh covers criminal justice issues and Spokane County government. Previously, he worked as a reporter for Seattle Weekly. Josh grew up in Port Townsend and graduated from the University of Washington. Message him through Signal @ (360) 301-3490.

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