Published in The Spokesman-Review
June 21, 2020
Our country is engaged in a great national discussion about the role of our police forces.
The tragic deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and others have brought this to the forefront like no other time in recent history.
Demands for police reform are widespread. City leaders are being asked to defund and reform police departments. How we conduct that discussion will have far reaching impacts upon our communities, and will affect our safety and security for years to come. It is critically important there be no “rush to judgment.” Decisions made must be thoughtful, deliberate, and neither reactive nor ill-conceived.
This is not the first time we’ve had this discussion in Spokane. Significant changes in policing have already been made. Spokane is different from some other communities where change is being debated today. Spokane should not be swept up into a national tide of drastic change. Instead, the Spokane Police Department may very well be a national model of how policing should function.
In 2006, Otto Zehm died as a result of an excessive Spokane police encounter. The U.S. Attorney’s Office, which I now represent, prosecuted Officer Karl Thompson. A jury convicted him and he served time in federal prison.
The Use of Force Commission, upon which I served as its Vice Chair, was then created. Twenty-six substantive recommendations for change and improvement were made, and the police department implemented nearly every one
Additionally, the police department asked the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services to conduct its own yearlong review of Spokane’s use of force policies, practices and procedures. A hundred-page report with a very detailed set of recommendations followed, which the police department has been implementing.
As we engage in today’s discussion about policing, our city leaders are encouraged to be educated on the work that has preceded them and the many improvements that have brought the Spokane Police Department to today’s model of professionalism and high standards of conduct.
Use of force is closely monitored and must be justified. Crisis intervention training (CIT) is now mandatory for all officers to give them the skills to try to deescalate incidents when possible rather than resorting to control with elevated levels of force. Chokeholds are a tactic of the past. Most recently, the department revised policy to restrict when a “knee to neck” restraint can be used. Officers are held accountable for their conduct. Police precincts are located in and are responsive to neighborhoods. And these are just some of the changes implemented.
Chief Meidl and his officers are engaged with community leaders and groups like no other time in recent years. The chief’s office door is open for discussion. He listens before he speaks. The Spokane Police Foundation funds additional vital community programs where young people learn police officers truly care and are there to help as much as they are there to protect us from those who break the law.
As the city discusses whether further change is needed, it should first discuss what we expect from our police officers. “Defunding” is a term which is neither realistic nor reasonable. Will removing resources mean a safer and more secure community? Simply stated, “No.”
Likewise, as these discussions occur, it is vital for the police to be included “at the table.” Council members should ask a lot of questions before acting and should take the time to ride with a cop in order to better appreciate what is expected of our police officers. They should meet with the department’s command staff for candid discussion of how far this department has come and why further change is or is not warranted. These officers are professionals. This is their community too, and they each want the best for their community just as much as everyone else does. And most importantly, they know what works and are very willing to discuss what they believe will and won’t promote a safer Spokane. They expect to be held accountable when appropriate, and they should be supported for all the good they do for this community.
We expect a great deal of our police. We should. As we discuss policy change, let us be sure the discussions are deliberative, and that they address actual issues here rather than conditions elsewhere which don’t exist in Spokane.
To do less subjects us to repeating the past and to preventing our police department from being as excellent as we all expect it to be.
William D. Hyslop is the United States Attorney for the Eastern District of Washington