SPOKANE, Wash. — Five years ago, the Spokane Police took on a major effort to improve the way they police the city.
They increased officer training, focused more on mental health and worked to build a better relationship with the public, according to a report from the City of Spokane.
The effort city leaders said was spurred by the death of Otto Zehm. Zehm died after an altercation with police in 2006. Former Police Officer Karl Thompson was convicted in 2012 by a federal jury for using excessive force and lying to investigators about Zehm’s death.
In the fall of 2013, the police department began the Collaborative Reform process through the Department of Justice. At the time, it was new and the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department was the only other agency participating in the program.
After an assessment, the Department of Justice recommended 38 improvements and the department implemented them all, according to a report the city released on the program.
Police Chief Craig Meidl said his officers bought into the program and embraced the changes. These changes included more training with an emphasis on mental health. The department also made strides to build their relationship with the community.
According to the city's report, non-deadly use of force is down 26 percent.
Chief Meidl said they emphasized de-escalation, crisis intervention and implicit bias training among other forms of training. Eight-nine percent of those surveyed said they felt these training efforts are beneficial to serving the community.
Meidl said major part of this process has been their focus on mental health. One example is the pilot program they launched in 2016, which pairs a patrol officer with a mental health clinician.
"We are really trying to look at what is causing that issue, so instead of handling the call for that day, trying to help get resources that will help them long term,” Meidl said.
During the pilot program, a majority of the people they came across were immediately connected to resources. Meidl said they have plans to expand this program.
Another improvement that is probably the most visible is the community outreach. The department launched two youth programs, Youth and Police Initiative (YPI) and Spokane Police Activities League (PAL). Both programs aim to mentor youth in the community.
"We have really come a long ways in gaining their trust and also looking at what we are doing and understanding how our behavior may be perceived or actually impacting the community,” Meidl said.
Eighty percent of those surveyed said they are satisfied with the level of service they are getting from the police department.
"It's exciting to see that our police department has that confidence of the public so that when they do try innovative things that the public is right along side them, that they are engaged,” Mayor David Condon said.
While the department has made huge strides over the last few years, Chief Meidl said there is still work to be done.
"I wake up every single day and go to bed every single night and say ‘what do we need to do to keep evolving and progressing’,” Meidl said.
Meidl said they plan to maintain the level of service, but they have got two major focuses moving forward, which include a push for mental health funding from the state and a crackdown on property crime.