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Spokane mayor discusses public safety efforts, updates search for fire & police chiefs

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(The Center Square) – In the wake of two officer-involved shootings earlier this week, Spokane Mayor Lisa Brown outlined plans Wednesday on new public safety efforts and upcoming searches for police and fire chief appointments.

“Creating a safer Spokane and improving emergency response services were among my top promises as I came into office,” said Brown, who was elected in November and took office Jan. 1. “As we search for our new chiefs and begin work to improve our community safety practices, it is critical that we engage in the community to learn what their priorities are.”

During a press conference Wednesday, Brown said that deputy city administrator Maggie Yates will lead a nationwide recruitment search for the two positions. Currently, those roles are being handled by interim police chief Justin Lundgren following the Dec. 31 retirement of Craig Meidl, and interim fire chief Julie O’Berg following last month’s retirement announcement of Brian Schaeffer.

Yates will work with executive recruiting firms and a selection committee comprised of city officials, service providers, and community leaders. To help shape job descriptions, Yates said internal surveys will be conducted within both departments to get employee feedback and the public can weigh in through an online survey.

Community meetings will also be held about the hiring process, which is expected to take several months. The selection committee will guide the processes for both the police and fire chief searches, including interviewing candidates, before making recommendations to Brown.

“We are grateful to our interim fire and police chiefs, elected officials, union leadership, subject matter experts, and community leaders from across the political spectrum for serving on the hiring selection committee,” Yates said in a press release.

Yates will also be leading a new “community safety work group” of city officials and subject experts that will meet monthly, beginning this Friday, to explore “all sorts of systems that influence safety outcomes.” Those include ways to address domestic violence and individuals who are routinely seen in jail, on the streets, or involved in emergency situations.

Brown said the hope is to provide help before a crisis occurs, freeing up law enforcement to address other needs such as investigating property crimes. As part of that effort, fire department information officer Justin De Ruyter said the department this week is launching a new medical-assisted treatment program for teams responding to narcotic overdoses that will provide patients with an option to reduce the risk of withdrawals and refer them to treatment facilities.

Brown said there will also be efforts to coordinate and expand responses that might come from the city’s own street medicine teams, those staffed by Providence Hospital, and alternative units from the fire and police departments – all of which are currently only available weekdays during regular business hours.

In response to a question about business owner complaints over lack of enforcement of Proposition 1, a new voter-approved initiative which bans camping in spaces where children may gather or be nearby, Lundgren said police had received nearly 300 calls of illegal camping since Jan. 1 and officers had responded to 277 of those calls.

In some instances, there have been arrests, said Lundgren, but officers also seek “compliance” from offenders to move on from a location. But he acknowledged it is “a pervasive challenge … something we’re well aware” and that it is an issue the newly formed safety work group should examine. Lundgren also noted there are federal court cases pending on homeless camping in public places which he hoped will ultimately provide better guidance for police officers on what they are allowed to do.

Brown said the city is looking at funding streams, homelessness and housing service providers, and auditing shelter capacities to coordinate transitions from “warming centers to transitional housing to affordable housing.”

Brown said Spokane’s challenges are not unique: people experiencing untreated mental health disorders, the “devastating effects” of substance abuse, economic insecurity brought about by the housing affordability crisis, domestic violence, property crimes, and increases in violent crime.

“There is not a single solution and the answer won’t be solved overnight,” she said.

Brown opened the press conference by expressing sadness “about the lives lost and the lives threatened and endangered in recent events in the city.”

She alluded to two separate incidents on Monday. According to police reports, officers responded around 12:40 a.m. to a residence in the 1100 block of East Wellesley Avenue after receiving calls that a woman had been shot. Officers entered the residence and exchanged gunfire with a male subject who was fatally wounded. The woman was transported to a hospital for treatment of apparent gunshot wounds.

A second incident was reported shortly after noon in which a male subject allegedly held a knife to another man’s throat in the downtown area. When later located, the man could not be controlled after officers deployed their tasers and he was shot by two officers. The man sustained life-threatening injuries and was transported to a local hospital.

As per standard practice, said Lundgren, the involved officers have been placed on administrative leave and the incidents are being investigated by a regional independent response team that includes the Washington State Patrol, Spokane Valley Police Department, and Spokane County Sheriff’s Office.

“I know we all want Spokane to be a place where people feel safe in their homes and their businesses, where they work, and where they play, in our schools, parks, and neighborhoods,” Brown said. “We all want things to be better than they have been in recent times. And I firmly believe that they can be and that starts with steps that we are taking today and with addressing people in need and in crisis earlier.”