Spokane City Council to Consider Law on Police Accountability

I received a message today from a friend on Facebook letting me know about a rally in Spokane to encourage the city council to enact stronger laws to ensure police accountability.  The Facebook page reads:

On May 17th the Spokane City Council will be voting on an ordinance to mandate that the Police Ombudsman conduct independent investigations and issue public reports about Spokane Police conduct. Right now, investigations are conducted by the Internal Affairs dept of the police.
Come urge City Council members to vote YES on this important step forward! Come join members of the Peace and Justice Action League of Spokane, MEChA of EWU, SHAWL Society, Progressive Democrats, NAACP, NAMI, CORD, VOICES, Need to Know, Center for Justice, Eastern Washington Voters, and Odyssey Youth Center to support this ordinance.
Rally at 5p; City Council meeting at 6p.
More info: contact PJALS at 838-7870 or pjals@pjals.net

After the death of Otto Zehm in Spokane  in 2006, I often think about the subject of police accountability.

Carl Maxey complained about a lack of police accountability in Spokane back in 1975. On May 17th the Spokane City Council will vote on a law to try to change the system.

(I have blogged about the subject here, here and here.)  The announcement I received today made me think of a book called Carl Maxey, a Fighting Life by Jim Kershner, a reporter for the Spokesman-Review.     As we know Maxey, a black lawyer from Spokane, was a champion of the civil rights movement and the anti-war movement before his death in 1997.  But he also was a strident advocate for police accountability in Spokane.   Maxey was perpetually frustrated by the subject.   After a coroner’s inquest justified the police shooting of a black teenager in the back, Maxey complained: “It’s apparent from this travesty that there must be a viable method or getting a full and complete investigation when a death is caused by a policeman.  At present, a citizen has no protection against the police.”  Thirty-five years later, Spokane still does not have sufficient independent over site of police misconduct.  The new proposed law before the city council would give the independent ombudsman greater authority by conducting independent investigations of police officer actions.

When I worked as a prosecutor I was often troubled by the lack of legitimate recourse citizens had when they felt aggrieved by police actions.  It seems like the only recourse is to go to a lawyer and sue.  And in that case it is usually the tax payer that loses out rather than the individual officer.  Last year I represented a Native-American man who was accused of assaulting a police officer in Spokane.  An independent witness came forward on the day of trial and testified that she looked out her window and saw what really happened.  She testified that my client did not assault the police officer, and in fact described instead what would be considered excessive force by the police.   Not surprisingly my client was acquitted.  However, he still has the scars from the use of the taser, and he missed a considerable amount of work due to the incident.  Like Maxey, my client is still waiting for a system to be created that provides for independent investigations into the use of force.

Let’s see what the Spokane City Council does later this month.  Check out the website of PJALS for more info on this subject.

2 Responses to “Spokane City Council to Consider Law on Police Accountability”

  • karen Young:

    There should not only be accountability for excessive use of force. There should be accountability for any violation of civil rights. I understand there are two types of law…..statutory laws…..and procedural laws. When citizens break a statutory law there are consequences in the form of jail time and fines. When police officers breake procedural law nothing happens to them. Where are the consequences? The citizen perhaps gets the evidence suppressed or a new trial….but what happens to the individual officer who broke the procedural law? Nothing happens. And so they continue on their way to break that law again and again. If no one is above the law then where are the consequences? When we finally get some in place is when we will start to see these things change.

    • Thats a good point Karen. It seems like the police get away with this stuff all the time. If the violation of civil rights is high profile or extreme then the plaintiffs get a big settlement, but the day to day violations go unaddressed.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR….
Steve Graham is a criminal defense lawyer, and he splits his time between Spokane and Seattle, Washington. Visit his website by clicking: www.grahamdefense.com
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