The Spokane Police Department is stuck in a ditch of bad public relations. A series of high-profile cases from Otto Zehm to Shonto Pete has the Spokane taxpaying public wondering how widespread the problem is. Are we stuck with a broken department that uses the code of silence to fend off real reform, or do we have just a few bad apples who get the punishment they deserve?
We, the media, really can’t answer that basic question. I know we have a lot of dedicated, brave officers here, but suspicion persists because the Internal Affairs reports on unsustained citizen complaints that would help us understand are kept secret.
That was the key finding of our four-month-long investigation published July 1, “Strong Arm of the Law.” Yes, the SPD’s PR problem has to do with cases of excessive force, but those are par for the course in law enforcement. It’s a tough job — really, the toughest — and every city deals with its share of such cases. The public judges how you deal with them when they inevitably happen — and how you prevent them from happening again.
In Spokane, a big part of the problem is the legal decision to keep the public’s business secret. It’s a practice unique to the City of Spokane, as law enforcement agencies all over the state, including Spokane County, make their IA reports (with appropriate redactions for privacy) available to the public.
Obviously we want our police to succeed and have the community’s trust and admiration, but why should one department be protected by a level of secrecy no other public employees enjoy? More openness will foster trust. Such secrecy also threatens the ombudsman’s credibility. How will we know if he is effective if no independent person can review the files he sees? Will the mayor ask to review every IA file? That would help, but Mary Verner could also just change the policy and release redacted versions of all IA reports.
Society functions best when the public trusts its institutions. We need that relationship of trust to be strong in the newspaper business, too, and we take it very seriously. We publish hundreds of thousands of words every week; we know we are human, and that mistakes are inevitable.
That’s why we own up to them, correct them and try to do better next time. We do this all as transparently as possible. Try it, Spokane Police. It might just agree with you.