In preparation for our recent story about Spokane Police Chief Frank Straub's first year on the job
, the Inlander
sat down with the city's top cop for multiple interviews on downtown crime, department-wide reform and his transition to the Inland Northwest.
Straub was sworn in as police chief a year ago this week and he has overseen a wide variety of changes during his first 12 months. We introduced him to the city with a cover story last fall
. With so much to cover over the past year, we couldn't fit everything into our print story, but we wanted to share some additional excerpts from those conversations.
Here are some more of Straub's thoughts on Spokane, SPD changes and future goals. My rambling questions have been paraphrased and the chief's answers have, at times, been cut for space, but remain otherwise unedited:
Inlander: How do you feel about your first year with the Spokane Police?
Straub: "You know, I think that those stories about how good our officers are just don't get out enough. It's kind of how the mayor talks about, we don't market Spokane enough and how good it is. I think we have to do more of that. I've had the privilege of working in a whole bunch of different places and I would put this police department up against any other. I think there's stuff that we need to learn and we have to do differently and we have to get out of our own bubble a little bit. But that's my job, right, to kind of get people exposed to the best practices of policing, the best practices of leadership. It's been great."
"We have incredibly welcoming people that live here. It's made my personal transition, or our personal transition, as well as the professional transition go really, really well."
How should the community address issues in downtown?
"I think one of the things that's troubling to me is that there are a lot of people that are talking and not enough people who are acting. I think we need the business community, the faith-based community, outreach groups, the Center For Justice and other participants in the downtown environment to come together with the mayor, with me, with [Spokane Neighborhood Services] to talk about what are realistic solutions to the challenges downtown.
"If we don't do that, then we've relegated these challenges to being a police issue, an 'order maintenance' issue. We end up over-incarcerating people. We arrest people who, at the end of the day, probably don't need to be arrested."
"I think the problem is that we have a segment of the downtown community that feel that they have a right to behave in any way they want. They don't have any communal responsibility. So we're then in this position, as the police, where we have to modify behavior or control behavior. Well, that's fine. That's part of our peace-keeping role, but I think that those other entities that I talked about need to be at the table with us. But then they need to leave the table with us and go on the street with us. I think there's room for our legal community to engage with these disconnected groups of people. I think there's room for our faith-based community to engage with them, our service providers to engage with them. And I think they need to be walking hand-in-hand with the police department if we're going to come up with a solution.
"These people need a place to go. They need food. They need services. They need to be able to be connected to things and not feel like their lot in life is just to wander the streets. If they want to wander the streets, that's fine, but don't disobey the law and don't aggressively or negatively impact somebody else's life. You should be able to walk down the street and go into a restaurant and not be confronted by somebody who's aggressively asking you for money. That shouldn't happen. They don't have a right to do that. They're impinging on your ability to enjoy your lunch or to go shopping. That's just not fair. You're not doing it to them. They don't have a right to do it to you.
"This is unacceptable behavior in this city. This is a city that we want everybody to be able to enjoy fairly and equally, but you know there's kind of norms here. So if we all adhere to those norms, we can all enjoy that public space, but it's this now human cry that this is a police-driven issue. It's not. I've said since the beginning of the summer in multiple public meetings — we are not going to use the police to arrest our way out of this problem. It has to be a community service. I'm still waiting for some of our partners to come to the table so we can make it a community solution."
"You have to define what the reality of downtown is supposed to be. We'll enforce that reality. That's my job. Our job is to keep the peace and enforce the reality of what all of us define as how we should enjoy and share public space."
How do you feel about how local media has covered the SPD?
"We have intentionally made every effort to make sure that we have a good business relationship with the media. The monthly news directors meetings, I think, are huge. It gives all of us an opportunity to talk about what's working, what's not working.
Straub addresses local media during press conference.
"You know, I really find the media here to be pretty fair. In this business, sometimes you get beat up by the media and sometimes the media tells the story the way you would like it to tell it. I think it really comes down to trust.
"The fact that we're trying to be as transparent as we are helps a lot. There's no dirty secrets. If I can tell you or any other reporter, I tell you. If I can't, I tell you I can't. I try to give you what I can, and sometimes there's investigative reasons and things, but I think overall the relationship with the media has been good.
"I expect that when we screw things up, we're going to be criticized for it. I think that's very important. I think the media has an obligation to bring things to the surface that cause public dialogue and we have to have sometimes thick skin and realize that the stories aren't always going to be what we like them to be."
"The days of trying to hide behind something, or not come out and talk to the press, those days are long gone. Not just here in Spokane, but across the profession. We have to have open, transparent relationships and honest relationships."
What issues have frustrated you throughout your first year?
"I'm frustrated by the property crime issue
. Frustrated that we've basically been able to get it to a level and hold it to that level, but we really need to get it down.
"Also, I think I've been challenged by and frustrated by the staffing shortages that we've had. I'm thrilled to death that the mayor and the council are behind growing the department to 300 or so. That's critically important because we can't just be a 911 response-based police department. We have to get engaged in those programs and opportunities that take a little bit longer.
"If we do that and if we do good prevention and intervention, we will at the end of the day reduce our call volume. We will also at the end of the day reduce crime. We will at the end of the day keep our officers safer."
"Very frequently our officers are literally just going from call to call to call to call to call. The other night, Monday night, we had at one point, 6:10, we had 30 calls open, waiting for somebody to respond to them. An hour later we were still at 25 calls. So I don't think you can accomplish all the things you want to from an intervention and prevention standpoint when you've got 25 calls holding.
"As our [staffing] numbers start to go back up, which they are, ... I think it's going to give us the opportunity to do a whole bunch of things that we can't do right now."
How is your relationship with the Spokane Police Guild?
"The guild is the guild. They have an obligation, a very important obligation, to represent their employees, to make sure that they receive the best benefits that they can, that they work under conditions that are appropriate for them to work under.
"I have found [Guild president Officer] John Gately
, and Ernie [Wuthrich] before him for the short time that we worked together, to be good partners. Not partners that roll over and play dead, but partners that challenge me to get it right. So if we're going to go in a direction, we do it in a way that engages them in the discussion."
"As we look at how we implement Use of Force recommendations, they have a seat at the table and they need to have a seat at the table. … I have an obligation to talk to them, to engage them, to listen to them and to make them part of the process and part of the solution as we move forward. So far it's been good.
"There's days when we disagree. That's the nature of the business. Sometimes you agree to disagree. Sometimes you have a disagreement and then you have to come together to figure out how we're going to come to a resolution, but I think they have very good leadership. I think they really want to also see the department succeed and be successful, and be re-engaged with the community."
What are your goals for your second year?
"The second year we have the same goals. We have to reduce crime. We have to make sure that we continue to implement the Use of Force Commission's recommendations, that we receive the Department of Justice with open hands and arms, that we implement their suggestions to us that will unfold over the course of their analysis and we have to continue to fully engage the community and be transparent to the community. Those three goals don't change.
"We need to get crime to zero. We need to get crime moving toward double-digit decreases. We have five or six years of very significant crime increases that we have to reverse, and we have to do that in a way that's respectful to the community that we serve.
"We have technology issues that, I believe partnering with the county, we're going to improve our dispatch systems, our records management systems by an infusion of new money.
"We have to continue to identify the best and brightest candidates, bring them into the department. Really everyday, get up and say, 'How can we serve the community better?' That's our obligation. We have, I believe, a department that's committed to doing that. We have to stay focused on the ball and keep moving in the, I think, very positive direction that we're going in."
What have you come to appreciate about Spokane?
"We have a great mayor. We have a mayor who is from here, gets it, is truly committed to really making this one of the best cities of its size. I know that's cliche, but I truly believe that David Condon is committed to that. I think we have a council that has similar focus and similar ambitions.
"We have natural beauty. You can go and ski. You can bike ride. You can go for a run in some of the most beautiful parts of the country. And you're only an hour flight from Seattle, which is a great city. I think there is a lot to offer. While the police department is full of a lot of great people, I think the city is [too].
"Somebody considering moving to Spokane would find an incredibly welcoming community, a community that is welcoming to people from other places coming into it — a community that is open to new ideas, that is open to different people. I think that's one of the biggest qualities of this city.
"It's a manageable city. You can find the things you want to find in a bigger city, but the pace is slower, the traffic is less, the ability to buy and own a house here is good.
"I think with the medical school really coming into fruition, that's a tremendous benefit for the city. We have great universities here, some great basketball at Gonzaga. Yeah, this is a great place to come and live. I couldn't be happier. I'm happy with my decision to come here. We're very happy. We feel very comfortable living here.
"It's a cool job. It's really a lot of fun. I feel very lucky to live here and very privileged to lead the police department."