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Spokane City Council votes to extend civilian oversight to police chief

Spokane Police Chief Craig Meidl speaks to reporters Thursday.
Rebecca White/SPR
Spokane Police Chief Craig Meidl speaks to reporters in February about police reform laws.

In the wake of allegations of favoritism, Spokane’s city council voted Monday to empower the city’s police ombudsman to investigate Police Chief Craig Meidl.

Many have called for the city council or the ombudsman to investigate Meidl after an investigation into leaked body camera video footage revealed a trove of emails between the chief and Spokane business leaders. Many of those emails contained information that is normally only available through a public records request, which often take months to compile and are usually redacted by a trained public records officer.

Many activists, as well as city council members, say the emails show a pattern of favoritism toward wealthy, and well-connected business and property owners.

Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward has not initiated an investigation into the emails, saying in a campaign-style press conference in April that Meidl was engaging with concerned community members, which she supports. She said calls for the chief’s resignation, and the city council’s formal request for her to investigate Meidl, was really about politics.

“(They don’t) like the police chief engaging with communities that have dissenting opinion, that's what this is about,” she said during the April presser.

Meidl also addressed the effort to expand civilian oversight, in a video posted to the police department’s YouTube page Monday afternoon.

“Inserting a non-elected person, and making the chief of police subordinate to him, or her undermines this process, it is inconsistent with the charter,” Meidl said. “The mechanism to investigate the police chief already exists through the mayor, human resources or an outside investigator. The city of Spokane deserves excellence in policing. This modification to the city charter is an obstacle toward that service.”

The ombudsman office, created through a vote of the people in 2013, investigates allegations of police misconduct, and can only make recommendations. They do not have the power to discipline any member of the police department.

The city council’s Monday night vote did not change Spokane’s city charter, which is similar to a constitution. It can be altered only by a public election. Instead, council members voted to delete a sentence from the municipal code, which they do have the power to change.

That sentence, “Complaints regarding the chief of police shall be directed to the mayor and investigated by the city’s human resources department,” was added to the city’s code in 2014 by a previous city council. It does not appear in the charter.

The city council’s vote also added a second new line to the code: “Out of interests in comity, the OPO shall strive to let other entities perform any investigation of the Chief of Police.”

That means the ombudsman should try to wait for the mayor’s office to initiate an investigation, but the ombudsman has the option to proceed if they choose to.

City council members, such as Karen Stratton, said an investigation could help clear the air. Before the vote Monday, she said the ombudsman is a non-partisan, non-political office that could bring much-needed transparency.

“We're kind of at a point where there's no trust,” Stratton said, “And people are feeling really uneasy with the police chief, who is a nice guy, but all of this stuff that's come out in the public, and it’s all so political, that's what's got to stop.”

Rebecca White is a 2018 graduate of Edward R Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University. She's been a reporter at Spokane Public Radio since February 2021. She got her start interning at her hometown paper The Dayton Chronicle and previously covered county government at The Spokesman-Review.