Chief Complaint

What does Frank Straub's resignation tell us about David Condon?

So former Police Chief Frank Straub was considered by senior officers to be insulting and demeaning, and, by golly, Mayor David Condon can't have that.

When it comes to charges like these, I'm not the most understanding guy on the block. For a decade, I worked in two Navy research and development programs, in close contact with an all-time great R&D guy. I refer to Admiral Hyman Rickover, the father of America's nuclear Navy.

Here's an example of major league R&D in action: David Lewis, who had recently been appointed CEO of General Dynamics, had never met Rickover. As the Navy was his firm's most important customer, while in D.C., Lewis decided to pay Rickover a courtesy visit. What happened next is from Patrick Tyler's book Running Critical: "Lewis called Rickover, whose first words were 'What the hell do you want?' Lewis made some attempt at a feeble response, and then Rickover really landed on him: 'BLOOD SUCKERS ON THE FACE OF HUMANITY! I'll be goddamned, this is just what I'd expect from General Dynamics. Here you are in Washington. Your company doesn't know what it's doing. It cheats the government. It can't run a shipyard. It's full of loafers and idlers, and here is the Chief Executive Officer, and what is he doing? Is he trying to clean up the company? Is he trying to stop people from screwing up? No, he is glad-handing around Washington like a politician. Well, I'll tell you something, Mr. Lewis. I've got no time for you. I've got plenty of important things to do, and when I need you for something, I'll call you!' With that," Tyler relates, "Rickover hung up."

Rickover not only wasn't fired, but today a Naval Academy building is named in his honor.

On his worst day, Frank Straub couldn't come close to matching Hyman Rickover. Maybe Straub wasn't "Spokane Nice" — but then, when you think about it, neither were Bobby Knight and Steve Jobs.

My contact with Straub was limited, but quite revealing. Over my 15 years at Gonzaga, I taught an urban politics and city life course. Every year I invited in several guest speakers — mayors, city councilmembers, social service leaders, developers, preservationists and, yes, police chiefs.

Chief Straub spoke to my class twice. He brought into the classroom a view of a bigger world. As for his people skills? He encouraged classroom discussion and patiently answered students' questions. To prepare for his visit, I had my students read "Broken Windows," the now-controversial 1982 article in The Atlantic co-written by James Q. Wilson and George Kelling. Straub, who knows Kelling, was aware that their argument had been reduced to "stop and frisk," leading to human rights violations. He explained that the authors were drawing a distinction between crime fighting and "feeling safe" — the latter is necessary to street life, which is essential to good city life. So, yes, greater police discretion is necessary to feeling safe on the street. Straub, who trained NYPD officers, viewed "stop and frisk" as an unintended consequence — the result of a warped reading of "Broken Windows." He has a pretty nuanced view of police work.

In response to student questions, he discussed ways that the same feel-safe results can be achieved without much, if any, "stop and frisk." For examples, he spoke of the importance of having more police on the street. He spoke of his efforts in Spokane to reduce physical force arrests, presenting statistics to buttress his argument. And he discussed the need for better training.

I'm quite certain that if my students were polled, they would overwhelmingly say of Straub: "Of all our visitors, he was the best."

Mayor Condon said that he based his decision to ask for Straub's resignation on complaints and anecdotes from the ranks of senior officers up through captains. Notably, rank-and-file officers aren't mentioned. About these senior officers who were complaining that Straub was too abrasive: Were they around when Karl Thompson assaulted Otto Zehm? And if so, did they stand by Thompson and his behavior? I certainly hope not. Sometimes in Spokane government, circling the wagons is thought of as being "Spokane Nice."

So how did Straub's management style, à la Rickover, affect public safety? If Straub's results look bad? Well, OK, we have just another personnel foul-up by the mayor. But if the statistics show that his leadership was working for Spokane? This would suggest that there's more to the story than Condon's tale of woe and innuendo. What we do know is that Condon now has seen his two most personally invested appointments — Jan Quintrall and now Frank Straub — blow up on him. What does this tell us about Mayor Condon?

As Spokane's very first strong mayor to make effective use of public relations, he is clearly good at photo ops and raising gobs of campaign money. But here on the eve of his effectively uncontested re-election, the question emerges:

Is that all he is good at as the mayor? ♦

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About The Author

Robert Herold

Robert Herold is a retired professor of public administration and political science at both Eastern Washington University and Gonzaga University. Robert Herold's collection of Inlander columns dating back to 1995, Robert's Rules, is available at Auntie's.