Spokane Police Department: The Difference Between Reform and Oversight

In Spring of 2020, the killing of George Floyd prompted protest and reflection on American policing. This locally administered aspect of government was being protested nation-wide. It led me to examine Spokane Police Department – the police force of my hometown – and their past experience with the issues now openly protested across America. I found the story encapsulated in the career of former Police Chief Terry Mangan.

When Terry Mangan became chief of the Spokane Police Department in 1987, he was the first outside hire for that position in departmental history.[i] This historic hire was likely due to scandals surrounding the SPD at that time and Mangan’s own unique background. Before earning a master’s degree in Divinity at Berkeley in the early 1960s, Mangan had participated in civil rights marches in Alabama. In 1964, Mangan became an ordained priest in Seaside, California and worked at a Catholic School there. Mangan also began a friendship with local police that progressed from frequent ride-along’s to working graveyard shifts as a uniformed patrolman, complete with a gun[ii]. In 1967 this moonlighting became public knowledge and Mangan was asked to choose between the cloth and the badge[iii].

            In his new career as a beat cop in Seaside and then Lakewood, California, Mangan led community-engagement programs that in the 1970s were the cutting edge of policing[iv]. Successful work in California led to Mangan’s hiring as police chief of Bellingham, Washington in 1975. While in that office, Mangan successfully connected the rape and murder of two students at Western Washington University and the “Hillside Strangler” of his previous precinct of Lakewood[v].

            This prominent case and Mangan’s success in Bellingham led to his election as President of the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs[vi]. At the same time that Mangan’s stock was soaring, Spokane Police Department was hiring outside consultants to learn how to regain community trust[vii]. From 1978 to 1981, the SPD has been unable to apprehend the high-profile South Hill Rapist[viii]. Allegations of incompetence were overshadowed only by SPD’s culture, demonstrated when Police Chief Olberding told a reporter that rape victims should “lay back and enjoy it.”[ix]

            An invaluable window into SPD comes in the form of memoir penned in 1999 by Mary Keinholz, who candidly recounts her time as a police administrator from the 1970s to 90s. The book is a difficult one, rife with explicitly racist and homophobic language. The author’s opinions and anecdotes demonstrate a combative, reactionary mindset, fearful of communist conspiracies and quick to condemn critics as “anti-police.”[x] While the memoir clearly lacks the official endorsement of SPD, it’s important to note that the danger and challenges inherent to policing can foster a sense of underappreciation, if not victimization in the face of criticism. [xi] Consequently, the challenge for any police force is elevating a mission of community-minded “protect and serve” over the thin-blue-line mindset that Keinholz’s labels: “you and me against the world.”[xii]

            In Terry Mangan, an ex-priest who had marched behind MLK, not Bull Connor, Spokane City Government hoped for a better future. In 1987, the new chief began his term with a flurry of community meetings, traversing the city to build rapport and drum up support for increased funding. A successful 1988 bond helped the budget for law-enforcement across Spokane county, updating equipment, training, and staffing. Within the department, Mangan promoted community outreach and individual initiative, disrupting and occasionally confusing what had previously been a severely centralized organization.[xiii]

In 1991, two children were kidnapped in broad daylight from Spokane’s West Central neighborhood. The corpse of Nicki Wood, 11 years old, was found on fire several days later. Rebecca West, 12 at the time of her abduction, was never recovered.[xiv] In response, neighborhood activist Cheryl Steele worked closely with Mangan to create a C.O.P.S. (Community Oriented Policing Services) Shop in West Central.[xv] Patrolmen were encouraged to use the donated building as a casual base and police-trained volunteers were organized to take reports, engage in broken-windows policing, and foster communication between residents and police.[xvi] The organization became a prime example of innovative community policing, and Mangan toured the country promoting its success.[xvii] More C.O.P.S. Shops opened in other neighborhoods with support from the city.[xviii]

At the same time, Mangan successfully defended the program against its only serious threat: the Spokane Police Guild. The Guild served as a union for all non-chief members of SPD, and wielded Washington State’s strong labor laws enthusiastically, suing in 1996 to stop the City from hiring downtown “Ambassadors” on the grounds that they were performing police business.[xix] With the new C.O.P.S. Shops, the SPG had grounds for a case that volunteers were performing contracted, union-protected police business, such as taking reports and filling out paperwork. Mangan successfully persuaded the Guild to instead view the new volunteers as an opportunity:

“We can use volunteers and they can fill in a lot more of the stuff our guys don’t like to do and free them up for more police work. We can go out and educate the public about what our needs really are and what’s happening to our community and hopefully that in turn will bring the attention to the elected officials around to the point where they’ll give us the stuff we need when they have the money to do it.”[xx]

At the same time, other fields were notable for the lack of change. Racial disparities in stops and arrests were an unchanging feature of SPD before,[xxi] during,[xxii] and after Mangan’s tenure.[xxiii] Spokane’s people of color were policed differently than their white neighbors and minority leaders complained about police mistreatment throughout Mangan’s term.[xxiv] Mangan himself admitted: “We have had consistent difficulty in dealing with [the black] community”[xxv] and pursued a perceived solution of diversity hiring for Spokane’s traditionally all-white police department. This was only partially achieved[xxvi] and contemporary studies show that diverse hiring has little effect on racial disparities in policing.[xxvii]

Two additional challenges were soon facing Mangan. First came the 1993 tax revolt election[xxviii] which threatened SPD’s budget. But even as the city’s budget shrank, President Clinton harnessed the “tough on crime” mantra of the 90s to steer federal funding towards a plan to employ 100,000 additional policemen nationwide. Mangan was able to secure 25 additional officers in 1994, the single greatest increase in 20 years.[xxix]

Yet even as Mangan secured his budget and grew his force, he faced calls for reform and oversight following fresh scandal in 1993. That year, a 19-year SPD veteran, Sgt. William Gentry, was convicted of raping a developmentally disabled woman.[xxx] While the officer in question was dismissed, the scandal pushed political support for citizen oversight into action by City Council.[xxxi]

Two years earlier, the city had created a Civilian Review Panel for overseeing complaints against the police. Yet that organization could only see cases that regarded misconduct, as opposed to conduct deemed in accordance with official police tactics. Even then, the Panel would review the case only if Mangan requested it, and then Mangan would decide what evidence was presented. Furthermore, 2/3 of the 11-seat council was required for any ruling or action, and Mangan was allowed to name 4 members of that body, essentially providing him a veto bloc.[xxxii]

In 1995, the panel was reformed into the Police Review Commission, whose members would be selected by the Mayor. Though this new body was entitled to any evidence it requested, the other preconditions stayed in place, despite complaints from City Council.[xxxiii] Over one year later, as multiple accusations of police brutality hit newsstands, the Council grew sharply louder: it was revealed that the PRC still lacked any members. As Mayor Geraghty pointed out, “No cases have been referred to it.”[xxxiv]

In newspaper coverage regarding public oversight, the public minded Mangan is notably without comment. His opinions on the matter only came clear in 1997, when the PRC at last heard its first case. The issue was a complaint brought by a farmer, Christopher Ostrander, who had been mistaken for a drug dealer and violently arrested by an officer out of uniform during a traffic stop. After Mangan cleared the officer of wrongdoing, the PRC opted to hear the case over the chief’s protests.[xxxv]

Chief Mangan did not explicitly reject the concept of oversight, but he also didn’t need to. He simply referred to the City Charter, wherein the Police Chief could not be overruled by either the Mayor or City Council. The Spokane Police Guild that Mangan had persuaded to accept C.O.P.S. volunteers now registered a labor complaint against the city, publicly offering to drop it if the PRC would back down. Though the PRC did find that the officer in the Ostrander case had used excessive force, City Council admitted that the commission had no power to act on its finding.[xxxvi]

            In the absence of independent, effective oversight, Ostrander and subsequent complainants followed a litigious pathway: A complaint against police would be rejected by the Chief or SPD’s Internal Affairs. The complainant would file a suit against the City of Spokane. The City of Spokane would countersue in every instance, resulting either in the complainant dropping their case or in settlement out of court. [xxxvii] Though Mangan retired in 1998 to teach for the FBI at Quantico, Virginia, this system of lawsuits and countersuits would endure for years, costing the city $2.5 million in payouts for 303 different settlements over the decade after his retirement.[xxxviii]

            It would take the 2006 killing of Otto Zehm by Officer Karl Thompson to reopen thornier questions of culture, training, and accountability.[xxxix] The killing lead to six years of attempted cover-up, resignations, firings, an FBI investigation, and a trial that ended in a rare conviction. The Office of Police Ombudsman was introduced into City Government by a unanimous City Council vote in 2008.[xl] The oversight powers of this office are contested by the Spokane Police Guild to the present day.[xli] Indeed, the Guild has had few subsequent Chiefs so closely allied as Mangan. Anne Kirkpatrick, SPD’s chief from 2006-2012, was unique in her willingness to publicly name and unilaterally fire officers for misconduct, though the majority of these same officers were reinstated after the intervention of the Guild.[xlii]

            Mangan eventually retired from the FBI and passed away in 2014[xliii]. While crime rates in Spokane varied during his tenure as Spokane’s Police Chief,[1] his term illustrates the challenges inherent to policing a democratic society. The changes to American policing that occurred in the 20th century were not his doing, but Mangan’s actions shaped the city he left in 1998, for both good and ill. He introduced community policing to Spokane and correspondingly expanded the force to address these greater duties. Neighborhoods such as West Central have arguably improved in part due to the C.O.P.S. Shops that continue to exist within them. In 1990, Mangan co-authored an article in the FBI bulletin that gave his perspective on the changing nature of police work in his lifetime:

            “Gone is the stereotype that police are the guarantors of the socioeconomic status quo. Today, the police are recognized as being artful practitioners on the leading edge of major social issues. As such, police are in the front-line delivery of public services associated with the mentally ill, the homeless, abused children, battered spouses and victims of racial and religious intolerance… [Police Departments] are dependent upon and affected by changes and evolutions in other organizations in their immediate environment or sphere of influence.”[xliv]

            In accordance with these ideas, Mangan tried to shape SPD into a more civic-minded organization. Yet subsequent years would see the department again asking outside consultants how to regain the trust of their community.[xlv] Though Mangan publicly said that the “department is insensitive to minorities”[xlvi] he passed the buck when he rejected the external oversight that might start to rectify the situation. Because Mangan would not abide citizen review, accusations of police brutality were diverted into a combative system that fostered the same culture he’d been brought in to change. While the advance of community policing called on the public to trust their police, Mangan, SPD, and SPG demonstrated a profound inability to reciprocate and trust their community to judge them fairly.


[1] Property Crime and Burglary both fell slightly in correlation with the rollout of C.O.P.S. Violent crimes, however, rose steeply during the 1990s, per the Uniform Crime Reporting Statistics Tool (Department of Justice).

[i] (Prager, Former Police Chief Terry Mangan dies 2014)

[ii] (Sheingold 1997)

[iii] (Sheingold 1997)

[iv] (Todak 2017, 26)

[v] (Hutton, Bellingham police chief who helped crack Bianchi case dies at 76 2014)

[vi] Ibid

[vii] (Jones, Echoes of Police Reforms Past 2013)

[viii] (Kershner 2010)

[ix] (Ryals, Use and Abuse of Power 2016)

[x] (Keinholz 1999)

[xi] (Todak 2017, 163)

[xii] (Keinholz 1999, 103)

[xiii] (Sheingold 1997)

[xiv] (Clark, Justice Was Never Served For Murdered Girls 1995)

[xv] (Spokane C.O.P.S.)

[xvi] (Sheingold 1997)

[xvii] (Johnson, Cops Criticize Mangan’s Trips: Police Chief Often Leaves Town To Give Lectures, Attend Meetings 1996)

[xviii] (Spokane C.O.P.S.)

[xix] (Lynn, Security Ambassadors Irk Police Guild Files Complaint Against City For Lost Police Work 1996)

[xx] (Sheingold 1997)

[xxi] (Spokane Police Department 1984)

[xxii] (Sheingold 1997)

[xxiii] (Shanks, New tool offers public a way to analyze police use of force 2019)

[xxiv] (Sheingold 1997)

[xxv] Ibid

[xxvi] Ibid

[xxvii] (Fifield 2016)

[xxviii] (Schwantes 1998)

[xxix] (Lynn, Feds Offer $2.5 Million To Hire Officers, Deputies City, County Will Scramble To Pay Their Share 1996)

[xxx] (Ryals 2016)

[xxxi] (Johnson, Council Approves New Police Review Commission 1995)

[xxxii] Ibid

[xxxiii] Ibid

[xxxiv] (Lynn, Police Review Panel Now A Priority Complaints Have Mayor, Council Promising Slots Will Be Filled 1997)

[xxxv] (Lynn, First Case Pits Citizens Panel Against Mangan Commission: Wants Investigation Of Complaint Dismissed By Police Chief 1997)

[xxxvi] (Lynn, Watchdog Panel Loses Rest Of Teeth In Scrap With Cops Council To Vote On New Rules Governing Citizens Review Commission 1997)

[xxxvii] (Steele and Morlin, Payouts, countersuits revealed 2007)

[xxxviii] Ibid

[xxxix] (Steele and Morlin, Oversight of Police an Issue 2006)

[xl] (Brunt 2008)

[xli] (Shanks, Council delays vote on Spokane Police Guild contract 2020)

[xlii] (Cuniff, Chief releases disciplinary details 2009)

[xliii] (Hutton 2014)

[xliv] (Mangan and Shanahan 1990)

[xlv] (Jones 2013)

[xlvi] (Sheingold 1997)

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