Tour de Force

Earl Martin and the Mayor’s Use of Force Commission push the envelope on police reform with a smart and sophisticated new report.

By Tim Connor,  for the Center for Justice

Earl Martin (center) with commission members William Hyslop and Susan Hammond.

Earl Martin (center) with commission members William Hyslop and Susan Hammond.

When he announced the formation of his Use of Force Commission early last January, Mayor David Condon expected to get its report in early summer. But if the report the commission delivered Thursday afternoon at City Hall is really six months overdue, it is also very much worth the wait.

With the Mayor, new Police Chief Frank Straub and a host of other top city officials looking on, commission chairman Earl “Marty” Martin briefed the press on a highly prescriptive report that delivers solid recommendations on everything from body cameras to, police oversight, to the beleaguered department’s culture. Martin appeared alongside two of the commissions members, vice-chairman and former U.S. Attorney William Hyslop, and Susan Hammond, the Director of Outpatient and Psychology Services at Spokane Mental Health.

You can listen to Martin’s briefing, including his response to press questions here.

You can download the full report and its 26 specific recommendations here.

“What you have in your possession,” Martin said, “represents the best effort on the part of the commission to identify ways to improve policing in Spokane and the engagement of the department with other City agencies and the general public. Although the Commission was not formed to specifically review the circumstances surrounding the death of Otto Zehm, it is certainly the case that the commission would not have come into existence, but for that tragedy. We have remained ever mindful that a core purpose of our work is to help avoids such events in the future and we hope that our ultimate product will accomplish just that.”

Both Martin and the commission’s vice-chair, former U.S. Attorney William Hyslop, were mindful to praise the professionalism and the cooperation they received from Spokane police over the past year. But the report is a mix of alert observations about key disconnects and discrepancies in the SPD’s cultural approach to policing, and bold recommendations for reform.

This, for example, is how Martin tactfully approached an important weakness in the SPD’s culture:

“Any great organization must be clear about what it stands for and it must affirm the values that represent that position in everything that it does. It is not clear to us that the department has been as effective at this as it can be. In our engagement with officers we did not hear a consistent message regarding the non-negotiables of the department. That is, those actions and attitudes that are essential to being a member in good standing within the department. We did hear officers talk with great passion about their service in terms that affirm their commitment to serving the public to the absolute best of their ability but the language used was largely ad hoc and individualistic. And often balanced against statements that you might characterize as defensive or pessimistic. This department needs to be clear about its values in all that it does.”

Between the covers of the report, the analysis is injected with precise observations. For example, on a central issue of the commission’s work—whether the SPD is really in synch with the legal standards that govern the use of force—the commission highlighted a key discrepancy. It noted that last winter the SPD had provided the commission with what was “purported to be the current version of the department’s Defensive Tactics Manual (DTM).”

“The version of the DTM provided to the Commission included the following sentence in its introduction under the heading Use of Force: ‘If that evaluation (i.e. an assessment of threatening behavior by a suspect) leads the officer to believe that the application of deadly force is his only means of protecting himself or others, then he is authorized, pursuant to departmental policy, to employ such (i.e. deadly) force.’ (parentheticals and emphasis added) This sentence in the context of the material that surrounds it, is an incorrect statement of the relevant legal standard.”

The report quickly adds that an SPD officer later reported that the version provided the Commission was “decades old” and that the current version of the DTM doesn’t include the language cited above.

While that piece of information “somewhat mitigates” the concern, the Commission reported, “it does not eliminate it altogether. It is the case that the officers most intimately involved with training in the SPD affirmed to the Commission that validity of the DTM” with the erroneous legal standard in it. The Commission then reported that one its two consultants, Mildred O’Linn, had identified “multiple” instances where SPD training materials contained “out-of-date or incorrect information regarding the rules governing the use of force by officers.”

Earl2smu“Although the Commission was not formed to specifically review the circumstances surrounding the death of Otto Zehm, it is certainly the case that the commission would not have come into existence, but for that tragedy. We have remained ever mindful that a core purpose of our work is to help avoids such events in the future and we hope that our ultimate product will accomplish just that.”--Earl “Marty” Martin at Thursday’s report release.

Along those lines, the Commission also addressed the evidence presented by the Center for Justice last spring regarding statements by SPD officer Terry Preuninger. Preuninger is the lead patrol tactics trainer for the SPD and he testified as a defense witness in the 2011 criminal trial of Karl Thompson, the former SPD officer convicted in connection with the death of Otto Zehm.

“While under cross examination by the prosecuting attorney,” the Commission noted, “Officer Preuninger provided answers that suggest the proper standard of review is to focus on the subjective beliefs of an officer when assessing that officer’s use of force. Again, the proper legal standard is the objective reasonableness standard.”

One of the more interesting parts of the Commission’s report is its embrace of testimony it received last May from Dave Barrett, a former California police officer who now works for the House of Charity in Spokane on security issues. Barrett discussed the Management of Aggressive Behavior (MOAB) training program which, as Barrett described it, emphasizes listening and building relationships with potentially violent individuals and using verbal skills to de-escalate confrontations that could result in the use of deadly force.

“We don’t necessarily prescribe that (MOAB) as the exact program to embrace,” Martin said, “but we would love to see the department embrace a program” like it.

In his opening remarks, Martin identified the four guiding principles of the commission’s recommendations:

• Affirming the values of the Spokane Police Department.

•Encouraging greater transparency within the department.

•Creating opportunities for external engagement.

• Furthering operational excellence.

Among the commission’s specific charges from the mayor was police oversight. In this area, the commission went even further in its recommendations than the city council did just this past Monday when it voted unanimously for an ordinance that would bring a city charter amendment to voters in February. The proposed charter amendment would require, as a matter of city policy, that the city’s police ombudsman have the power to independently investigate complaints—something the ombudsman is currently prohibited from doing.

The commission adds still another piece to the ombudsman prescription. In addition to recommending that the ombudsman be given “unrestricted and complete access” to all city files, it recommends that “all city employees and those acting on behalf of the City” be required to cooperate fully and truthfully with the ombudsman.

 

“In my estimation” said Martin, “there’s nothing but good that can come out of this on the part of the department if it would embrace a fully empowered ombudsman.”

 

The commission’s report doesn’t flinch from addressing what, until now at least, has been a major impediment to securing public confidence in the SPD—the City’s fog-shrouded relationship and negotiations with the police unions.

Noting the numerous opinions it received blaming the “unhealthy culture” of the police department on the police unions, the commission wrote: “Even if that opinion is inaccurate on one or both accounts, the perception still remains that the bargaining units within the SPD are having a negative influence on the department’s operations, its reputation, and the credibility within the community. The Commission encourages the City to be as open as legally possible regarding its negotiations with the Spokane Police Lieutenants and Captains Association.”

Furthermore, “the Commission believes that neither collective bargaining unit should use the bargaining process to extract additional compensation when confronted with the need to make work place condition changes that do not materially change their members’ job responsibilities.”

Another key area of the commission’s report concerns so-called “crisis intervention team” (CIT) training to better train and prepare the SPD to deal with difficult situations involving the mentally ill. In addition to supporting that part of the recent legal settlement in the Otto Zehm civil case—which requires the City to provide CIT training to nearly all members of its patrol staff—the commission encourages the department to develop and promote a “cadre” of officers with heightened skills, motivation and training who can be “deployed in a way that provides maximum coverage across all shifts.”

The commission’s report was released in draft form today because, as Martin announced, the commission intends to hold two public hearings in January to take public feedback on its draft, before producing a final report for delivery to the mayor in February. The two meetings are:

•Wednesday, January 16th from 2 to 4 p.m. at the City Council chambers.

•Wednesday, January 30th, from 2 to 4 p.m. at the Northeast Community Center, 4001 N. Cook.

“I think it (the report summary offered by Martin) was very positive,” said the City’s new police chief, Frank Straub. “I think what you will see and what the public will hear is that many of the issues that they’ve raised, we’ve started to address already. I can personally attest the fact that I went through the inservice training this last cycle and many of the suggestions that (commission consultant) Ms. O’Linn had put forward in terms of use of force and use of force continuum, we’ve already adopted into our training.”

For his part, Mayor Condon said he was eager to get the report, even though implementing the recommendations will challenge him and other city leaders to come up with the resources. Talking to reporters, Condon said that the recommendation for body cameras (a recommendation Chief Straub says he’s already committed to)  is estimated to cost between $850,000 and $1.5 million.”

“You have to start somewhere,” the mayor said, “and it was not under their purview to worry about that (cost). They need to worry about providing the best service and it’s incumbent upon the administration to come up with the financial plan to do that.”

Martin repeatedly stressed in his comments that bringing needed changes to Spokane’s police department will require larger budgets for the SPD.

“You know,” he said, “a community cannot have great police force on the cheap.”

—CFJ—

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