Spokane police investigations into officer wrongdoing must be open to the public, after a ruling by Washington’s Supreme Court last week.
“We will change our policy to be consistent with what the Supreme Court ruled,” says Marlene Feist, the city’s spokeswoman. “The mayor has ordered [City Attorney Howard Delaney] to reword the policy so it is consistent with that decision.”
By an 8-1 margin, the justices ruled that internal investigations performed by the state’s law enforcement agencies should not be hidden from public view. Of those eight, four argued that the name of a police officer accused and cleared of any wrongdoing should be redacted, or blacked out, but that the investigation should still be made public. The other four, including Chief Justice Barbara Madsen, said that the full document — including the officer’s name — should be released.
“It’s totally on point,” says Breean Beggs, a local civil rights attorney who is helping to represent the family of Otto Zehm, a 37-year-old janitor who was mistakenly suspected of robbery and died after an encounter with Spokane police in 2006. “There’s no defensible legal reason for withholding those now. It’s the law of the land.”
The city previously has cited two court rulings as justification for withholding documents of internal investigations — both of which, Beggs says, will no longer hold precedent over this latest case, Bainbridge Island Police Guild v. City of Puyallup.
The decision stems from investigations of Bainbridge Island Police Officer Steven Cain, who was accused of sexually assaulting and choking a woman during a traffic stop in 2007. Cain was cleared of any wrongdoing.
The woman who made the accusations, Kim Koenig, sought the records, as did another citizen and two reporters. Superior Court judges in King and Pierce counties ruled that the records could be withheld due to the state’s public records law.
The Supreme Court reversed these decisions, saying the public had a “legitimate interest in how a police department responds to and investigates” its own members.
The ruling is contrary to the city’s interpretation of state public records law, which The Inlander found last year to be out of step with that of other cities, and other law enforcement agencies, across the state.
But when pressed about it then, both police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick and Rocky Treppiedi, an attorney with the city who specializes in law enforcement matters, defended their interpretation.
“We didn’t form the policy,” Treppiedi said. “We just comply with the law.”
“It’s a legal decision, versus policy,” said Kirkpatrick. “I obviously follow our — the city’s — legal counsel on such matters.”
Late last year, the city’s major media outlets, including The Inlander, wrote Mayor Mary Verner asking her to make internal investigation reports available for public scrutiny. At the time, she said she wanted to make the city’s records policy more transparent but couldn’t unless the Police Guild agreed to it.
It’s uncertain if the Guild has to agree to the changes prompted by the court ruling, even as Verner has ordered the policy to be changed.
“That’s one of the questions that the legal department is looking at: how clear the Supreme Court ruling is,” Feist says. “It’s still not clear whether we have to have a discussion with the Guild or not.”