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Behind the Badge

The biggest takeaways from the long-awaited audit of SPD

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Spokane police officers are weary, but hopeful. A long-overdue audit of SPD's internal culture was one of the remaining recommendations from Spokane's Use of Force Commission and a separate Justice Department review. Researchers from Gonzaga University released a 94-page report last week, detailing a month of ride-alongs, interviews and surveys.

In their answers, officers plead for a bigger force with more cops and civilian staff. They talk about an internal "good ol' boys" club and "cliquish" environment, yet emphasize a department built on a foundation of integrity, honesty and loyalty. Officers are frustrated with recent shake-ups in leadership, an often negative portrayal of police in the news and the shadow cast over the department by two of the most publicized controversies in recent years — the 2006 beating death of Otto Zehm and scandal-plagued exit of former Chief Frank Straub in 2015.

Asked about the culture of SPD, one officer said: "Tired, as our police force has been treated like a second-class organization by City Council, the media and others in the community."

Although the report does not offer recommendations, Gonzaga professor and principal investigator JoAnn Danelo Barbour emphasized the most pressing issue during a news conference last week: "From what we understood, it's the staffing issue," Barbour said. "Add police officers, and add civilian workers."

Below are several other big takeaways from the culture audit:

THEY CAN'T CATCH 'EM ALL

Property crime is a huge issue. Officers say they don't even have enough personnel to investigate all the felonies.

"We are only able to assign about 30 percent of the solvable felony property crimes cases to detectives due to low staffing in investigations," one officer responds. "That is abysmal and infuriates citizens and officers alike."

STABILITY NEEDED

Since Straub was ousted in 2015, three men have sat in the chief's chair. That hasn't gone unnoticed by the rank and file.

"There have been so many new hires and retirements that the composition of the department is very different than it once was," an officer writes in a survey answer. "Because of transitional leadership, the culture is changing while we speak. Under our last permanent chief, people began to look out for themselves first and jockey for power, and put the team concept aside. Our senior leadership is slowly changing from that approach to more of a team approach, but it is slow."

'UNDER A MICROSCOPE'

Officers say that more communication with the public, and a better understanding of police work, would help bridge the gap between police and citizens. Generally, officers say the public's misunderstanding of their job ranges from not knowing what cops are legally allowed to do, to not "seeing how evil people can be to one another" on a daily basis.

Most officers were frustrated with the seemingly constant feed of "negative" news coverage of the police. Without a balance of "positive" stories, officers feel like they're under constant scrutiny.

Survey data shows that more than 70 percent of SPD employees disagree with the assertion that news media fairly represents the department's work.

INSIDE OR OUT

While veteran officers say it's important for newer officers to prove themselves through hard work, cops new to the department describe a "cliquish" environment with "nepotism and immaturity."

"I believe in fair treatment of employees, and in management being upfront," one officer tells a researcher. "A lot of internal politics and backstabbing impact on the overall effectiveness of the department."

WOMEN AND MINORITIES

Researchers found that women and minorities have a tough time moving up the ranks. The perception is that women in particular have to work harder than men to prove themselves.

"About the department, I think that they are still stuck, as far as women are still treated differently than men," an SPD employee says. "That's a big one."

DEFINE SUCCESS

Some officers describe success as "catching the bad guy" and earning the respect of their peers and the community at large. Others celebrate just coming home at night unharmed.

One officer told the story of a young girl who the officer previously arrested "like, five times." On the girl's birthday, the officer brought her a candy bar and a balloon. "She just broke down in tears and said that no one had remembered her birthday, not even her family." When the girl saw the officer in the juvenile detention booking area later, she ran up and gave the officer a hug.

"You know, we operate in a toxic environment," a different officer responds. "Everything we touch, there's very few positives here. ... So, success? We get out of this job alive. That's it. My measure is walking out of the door alive in another five, six years."

During last week's news conference, Phil Tyler, president of the NAACP's Spokane chapter, applauded the department for completing the long-awaited audit, calling it a "first step." The culture audit included the perspectives of officers and SPD's civilian employees, but no input from the community. That's a limitation that Barbour and her team acknowledge.

Deb Conklin, chairwoman of the Office of Police Ombudsman Commission, echoed Tyler's concern and added some criticism of her own.

If you consider the audit's conclusion that SPD's foundation is built on integrity, honesty and trustworthiness, Conklin suggests, how do we reconcile that with the recent news that 11 Internal Affairs complaints were withheld from the police ombudsman's office? The department is working to ensure that doesn't happen again, but "as an outsider looking in, where's the integrity in that?" she asks.

Additionally, the audit only turned up one response that mentioned bullying or abusive behavior.

"There's pretty good evidence that when Straub was chief, there was an inappropriate atmosphere that he was involved in, if not creating, with bullying and inappropriate ways of talking to people," Conklin says. "It struck me that the investigators said they only found one respondent who mentioned bullying. This was only a year-and-a-half ago. You cannot pretend that issue didn't happen."

Ultimately, Chief Craig Meidl says the next steps will be working with the Department of Justice Office of Justice Programs Diagnostics Center to gather feedback from the community.

"I felt like the officers really wore their hearts on their sleeve," Meidl says. "They were really honest and upfront and straightforward about things that were on their minds." ♦

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