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Feb 3, 2023 18 min read

Behind the scenes of the policing roundtable breakdown

Behind the scenes of the policing roundtable breakdown
(Photo illustration by Valerie Osier)
Table of Contents

Advocates wanted reform, city leaders wanted to foster relationships. Both sides left frustrated. Here’s how it broke down and what’s next.

Ongoing policing roundtable meetings spilled from behind closed doors and into the public as the talks came to an acrimonious halt on January 31, just hours before the group was set to have its final meeting.

Several days of conversations with city leadership and community members involved in the discussions, alongside dueling press conferences and a raft of emails obtained by RANGE, paint a years-long picture of disagreements — not just about specific police reforms, but the very structure, purpose and ground rules driving the conversations.

Even the length and schedule of the meetings was contentious. One former committee member said community representatives did not prioritize making time for the meetings, which ranged in length from three to eight hours. Those members responded that they have day jobs and couldn’t always accommodate the short notice and rigidity of the meeting times offered by the city.

When facilitators and city officials heard about a plan by a group of police accountability advocates to share their grievances with the process in a press conference following the meeting, they decided to cancel the meeting altogether.

At noon on Tuesday, just down the hall from where the final roundtable meeting might have been celebrating a breakthrough, community organizers gathered in a meeting room at the Hive on East Sprague to discuss the near complete breakdown.

Later that evening, Mayor Nadine Woodward and Spokane Police Chief Craig Meidl held a press conference addressing the aborted meeting. Both expressed frustration with the way the talks ended and pledged to strike a balance between police reform and community safety, with the mayor saying she was turning her attention to the state legislative session, rather than continuing to work locally. Beggs still has plans to move forward with legislative reforms at the city level, though it’s unclear who on the roundtable — if anyone — understood that was his plan all along.

The collapsed discussions exposed a fundamental disconnect between what each side was seeking in the discussions. City leaders said they saw the conversations as a way to build trust and forge relationships to build a foundation of mutual understanding between the police, city elected officials and impacted communities. Police accountability activists and community leaders who attended the conversations said they weren’t opposed to building relationships, but their only must-have outcome was that the conversations lead to concrete, meaningful reforms.

Ultimately, what city representatives — perhaps especially Council President Breean Beggs — had hoped would be a celebration of relationship building and what community advocates (along with Beggs) had hoped would lead quickly to concrete reforms, became almost exactly the opposite of that.

Talk to you … later

Flashback to late May and June 2020: For weeks, thousands of people marched through downtown Spokane and gathered in Riverfront Park to protest police brutality in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd. Pleas for reform echoed from weekend to weekend as people came downtown to hear speeches from police accountability advocates and community members impacted by police violence. Woodward and Meidl showed up to a protest, said they were listening, and made calls for participation and collaboration.

In June of 2020, City Council President Breean Beggs, who has a background in criminal justice reform and police accountability as a civil rights attorney, posted a list of 17 reforms for the city to adopt. By August 2020, the city had come up with a framework to guide roundtable discussions on police reforms — a framework organizers said was foisted upon them without consultation, but which they agreed to in a spirit of getting the reforms done.

In correspondence to participants in October 2020, Beggs stated the objective of the meetings: “The goal of the process is to achieve shared appreciation of lived experiences with policing from as many perspectives as possible and reach as close to a shared consensus as possible on multiple police reforms, based loosely on the list I posted on our city council website in June. The list will be reworded to be more of a list of questions than declarative statements. As consensus is reached, City Council will start implementing specific reforms. If consensus is not reached, City Council will still consider reforms but passage will depend on sufficient votes.”

Beggs’ intention to use the roundtable to create political consensus for reform was clear at the beginning, but as weeks became months and eventually years, the clarity of that early mission got murkier for many of the community members focused on reform.

The actual roundtables didn’t start until May 2021, a year after regular protests drew thousands into the streets for weeks. Once they were finally underway, there were multiple setbacks. Some of those were inevitable as COVID-19 social distancing mandates kept people from meeting in person and personal health issues with facilitators caused delays. Ultimately, the group met four times in 2021: On May 18, July 30, November 18 and December 16. A meeting scheduled for March 2022 was pushed back all the way until January 31, 2023, before being canceled.

Members of the discussions have been frustrated with the lack of urgency and regularity surrounding the conversations. Luke Tolley, who was appointed by the Community Assembly of Neighborhoods to represent the Neighborhood Councils in the roundtables, said he and other members initially expected the process to be like previous city roundtables and follow a regular meeting cadence. Instead, the scheduling was haphazard.

“I think there's an automatic assumption of monthly, at least quarterly, meetings to move things forward,” Tolley said. “It obviously was a very timely issue, and that was not what we experienced.”

The lack of regular meetings and cancellations led to some members questioning whether the discussions were a priority for city and police leadership. Others questioned the commitment of the community members. In June 2022, Jenny Rose, the vice chair of the Office of Police Ombudsman Commission (OPOC), resigned from the discussions, and didn’t mince words on her way out. “I joined this committee in good faith thinking we could all work together and make changes,” Rose wrote in an email shared with RANGE. “I took it very seriously but obviously others did not in my opinion.”

No one responded to Rose’s resignation email and she stayed on the email list of attendees. “I thought it just died,” she told us. “I thought that was the end of it until I saw that news conference the other day.”

Rose was clear that she wasn’t just blaming the city for the inconsistent scheduling. “It was not a priority for some people,” Rose said. “It was more like an inconvenience to them.”

Organizers also felt like the timing of the discussions was indicative of the power imbalance between the stakeholders. Jac Archer, an organizer with Peace and Justice Action League Spokane, said the participants were often just given a day and time to show up — usually for four to eight hours on a weekday — and if they weren’t there in the capacity of their day jobs, they were doing that work unpaid. Doodle polls (an online scheduling tool) were eventually used to ensure meeting times worked for more people, but by then much of the dysfunction had set in.

Kendricks echoed that frustration. “Without regard for the power imbalance between government and law enforcement, and the group of largely unpaid community representatives, city leaders chose the day, time, and location for us to discuss police violence, policy and broken trust for eight hours on a weekday,” he said.

Partially because of these scheduling difficulties, and for other reasons, the exact members of the group weren’t the same from meeting to meeting, which Beggs, Rose and other members said was a source of frustration in keeping continuity and respectful engagement intact.

Council President Beggs acknowledged the frustration with the inconsistent meetings, but pushed back on the idea that the scheduling issues stemmed from a lack of interest. “It was frustrating, and I think there was maybe a misapprehension that there was some intentional foot dragging or something like that,” Beggs said. “Really it was a whole bunch of things that happened.”

Beggs ran through a litany of setbacks during the process. He was diagnosed and getting treatment for cancer in July 2021. A facilitator was also out sick and left the talks. The president of the police guild was shot on duty in July 2022. Sandy Williams died in a plane crash accident in September 2022.

“These things in and of themselves were relatively innocent and not a symptom of people foot dragging,” Beggs said. “But when you add them all up over time for a community that cares about people dying and being assaulted by people who they employ as police officers — it’s intolerable and it's challenging.”

“I don’t begrudge anyone's frustration, but some people took it a step farther and felt that there was almost an intention behind it,” Beggs said. “I just didn't see that. There were probably times where I felt like people could have been more motivated, but I never saw anyone intentionally trying to obfuscate things or slow things down.”

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Setting the table

The four roundtable sessions that did happen included representatives from BIPOC community organizations, members of the Spokane Police Guild (the union representing city police), community members active in city advisory roles, Police Chief Meidl, Mayor Woodward and Council President Beggs.

Andrea Brenneke, a Seattle-based attorney, and Kiantha Duncan were hired by the city to facilitate the meetings. Duncan, who served as the head of the Spokane NAACP from 2020 until Monday, resigned in part as a result of the collapse of the discussions. Duncan would not elaborate on the talks or why they ended to RANGE, but clarified she was not representing the NAACP in her role as a facilitator.

Beggs made it clear, though, that community groups like the NAACP pushed to have a local facilitator like Duncan, who had community buy-in. He said the city had initially considered a person from out of town who specialized in reaching consensus and healing rifts between communities and police but “there was a request from the NAACP and others to pick someone from the community, so we found Kiantha Duncan,” Beggs said. “I expended a lot of political capital to get that done, and we did, and I thought that was good.”

“And unlike other facilitation processes, we made sure everyone around the table had an equal voice,” Beggs said, meaning the participants voted on things like whether to allow substitute community members and police representatives.

But while decisions made in the room were democratic, some police accountability advocates felt too many foundational aspects of the conversations were decided before anyone entered those rooms, and that the voices in the room were being cherry-picked by city officials. “First, city leaders mandated the terms of conversation and announced them to the press without involving any community members,” said Pastor Walter Kendricks. “Then, from their position of institutional power and self-isolation, they curated the portion of the community they deemed representative.”

Archer, who joined the discussions for the second meeting as a replacement to Walter Kendricks and attended every meeting afterward, said the members didn’t change that much from meeting to meeting. Kendricks only missed the second meeting before rejoining the group for the final two meetings.

The other replacements were Sarah Dixit who replaced Pui-Yan Lam when Dixit became co-chair of APIC Spokane and Justice Forral who replaced Lili Navarrette at the second meeting when Navarrette couldn’t make it, and continued to attend afterward.

“Honestly, by the second meeting, the same people showed up every time,” Archer said.

Representatives from the Spokane Police Department and the Police Guild shifted as well. Police representatives who attended the first two meetings were not present at the third. Chief Meidl was the only law enforcement representative at that meeting, according to meeting notes shared by Tolley. When police representatives returned for the fourth meeting, it was new people.

Spokane Police Guild Vice President Tim Schwering chalked that up to scheduling confusion. Schwering said he thought this week’s meeting was going to be the third meeting, not the fifth. “We've been going to every one that we've been invited to,” he said. “I honestly don't remember missing meetings. If I couldn't make it, my understanding was someone else was going to go. We were trying to be attending everything.”

Shifting participants and scheduling confusion wasn’t the only frustration with the meeting process. Advocates and the police guild chafed at the city’s request that participants sign non-disclosure agreements (NDAs).

“We went there, and it was going to be a community discussion, and then they were talking about us signing NDAs,” Schwering said. “It seemed odd to me that you're going to have a community discussion, and not include the community. That was kind of my main concern going forward.”

The city said asking participants to sign NDAs was an attempt to foster a sense of security and openness in the meetings. “These are extremely sensitive and difficult conversations to have,” said Woodward. “People were very vulnerable in these conversations,” Woodward said. “And to think that somebody could walk out of that meeting and then go share that publicly — why would those people return to the round table for future discussions?”

NDAs were a deal-breaker for community members too, and Council President Beggs said he pushed back strongly as well, and that the request was dropped before the end of the first meeting. However, the members still agreed informally to not talk about what happened in the room until the final meeting had taken place.

“It would have been a breach of the group agreement to report out what went on” at those meetings, Archer said, and the community members held up that part of the agreement.

Power struggles, hard conversations and familiar frustrations

The power imbalance in setting the conditions frustrated activists. But according to one meeting attendee, activists were also using the meetings as an opportunity to vent frustrations and struggle for power with city and police representatives. Rose, a community member representing the Public Ombudsman Office, said inconsistent attendance, and a lack of respect for the guidelines set out of the beginning of the process led to major disruptions from activist members.

“I remember coming out of one of the meetings in tears,” Rose said. “Somebody on Zoom went directly to somebody there in person and went right after that person. And I'm like, what? We're supposed to be here for police reform and coming up with ideas. To me, it was a big power struggle for some, trying to get the power.”

Rose said she felt like activists used the meetings to take shots at the mayor and police, but that the city leaders were open and operating in good faith. “I didn't get the power feeling from Chief Meidl. I didn't get it from Nadine [Woodward],” Rose said. “I certainly didn't get it from a couple of the police officers who I thought were very, very open.”

The activists saw it differently. They felt there needed to be clear, hard conversations about how they, as people of color, have experienced policing. They said that, of the four meetings, the second had what they characterize as toughest, most truthful and frank conversations.  

Kurtis Robinson, who stepped back into the role of Spokane NAACP President this week after previously heading the local chapter from 2017-2020, was among the community members who got increasingly frustrated as the months went on.

Robinson said he tried not to prejudge the process, but as months turned to years, this roundtable began to feel similar to other convenings he had been invited to. After collective decades of struggle and calls for conversations, Robinson said he and his mentors have grown weary of what feels like a familiar, unproductive process.

“This is how it happens,” he said, “especially when it comes to community coming to the table. There’s all this invitation, but very little movement for our efforts. When you talk to elders like Toni Lodge and the late Sandy Williams, that is exactly their complaint.” RANGE was unable to connect with Lodge before print due to her busy schedule.

Both Robinson and Archer said the comments were hard, and raw, but true to their experience as people of color. When police guild members didn’t show for the third meeting, activists were under the impression that they didn’t come because of how the second meeting went.

Robinson said it felt like “they were hearing things they didn’t like so they said, ‘we’re taking our toys and going home.’” Archer, Tolley and Forall, shared similar sentiments, each saying in their own way that police representatives missing the third meeting felt like a signal that they did not want to hear their truth, which made the difficult process of building trust even harder. It was demoralizing, from Archer’s perspective, “that the meeting that made [the union representatives] leave is the only meeting where I had faith in the process that we were actually having an honest discussion.”

Schwering said the Guild Members’ absence at that meeting wasn’t because of conflict with community members, but due to scheduling or communication breakdowns — echoing community members’ frustrations — and that any lack of attendance was not a reaction to difficult conversations. “If we’re going to protest something we’re at least going to let you know why we’re doing it,” he said.

Here we see another clear example of a breakdown in communication that fed doubts about people’s dedication to the process, and to the process itself. Police guild representatives said they weren’t skipping the meetings intentionally, but their absence led activists to believe they had.

“[Police reform] is a complex issue, and we know that complexity is coming from every single angle. Not just the community, not just the city, not just the police,” Robinson said, “There’s a collision of complexity, and it takes meaningful work to get it done. Even at its base level, even if everyone agrees, there’s a titanic lift to create sustaining change.”

It also demonstrates how, if a core goal of the facilitators was to build the sorts of relationships that would lead to being able to work through simple interpersonal understanding, the process failed on those terms very early on.

Diverging paths on police reform

Since Beggs released his list of 17 proposed reforms in 2020, only a handful have been implemented. And of the reforms that have happened, most were implemented at the state level, not locally.

“What meaningful action has been taken for change?” asked Robinson of the NAACP. “That’s the question, and when we look at that, here we are again, not much.”

Beggs said he doesn’t currently have enough votes in council to overcome a potential mayoral veto on many of these reforms (he would need five). This was one of his intended outcomes from the roundtable: to build and demonstrate consensus or at least broad support for as many of the reforms as he could to make it easier for the council to pass them.

Beggs also said he personally fought for the state level reforms that passed in 2021, in his role with the Association of Washington Cities legislative team. “We put together a pretty amazing coalition to get a lot of things through,” he said, “including the [ban on] lateral neck restraints and a lot of other de-escalation things.”

​​After expressing her disappointment with the dissolution of the discussions, Woodward said her current focus is on the state legislature and striking a balance on recent statewide police reforms, not pursuing local police reform. “We'll turn our attention to the conversations at the state level and restoring the balance between needing evolutions in policing and the needs of our community and our community members to feel safe,” she said.

“Those include a fix to the Blake decision that offers both an incentive and accountability for drug possession, as a way to address the drug problem plaguing Spokane and every other city, in every state,” Woodward said. “It also includes the ability for police to pursue suspects based on reasonable suspicion while maintaining some of the guardrails to keep our community safe.”

This focus on changes to statewide police reform, rather than local action to adopt proposals put forward by Beggs, has frustrated accountability advocates who said they aren’t aware of how and which reforms have been adopted at the local level.

“I can't speak to what they've done by their own initiative, because they haven't necessarily shared that,” said Archer. “What I can say is that we know ever since the package of 11 police reform bills passed in the 2021 legislative session, [Spokane Police and the Mayor’s office] have done very little but criticize them and vocalize an intent to roll them back.”

“I have a hard time believing that they're moving forward with reforms of their own volition, when what reforms we are aware of through our legislature they have heartily resisted,” Archer said.

Police killings continued during delayed talks

While the talks were in process, the Spokane police department bumped up from the fifth deadliest police force per capita to the fourth deadliest among the 100 largest cities in the country in the last 10 years. Chief Meidl has disputed the methodology of this reporting from in the past because Spokane’s relatively small population size to other cities in the top 100 means each police killing has a greater impact on the city’s ranking.

While that is true, the per capita approach means that each police department in that cohort of America’s biggest cities is being judged based on how many killings there are per person in their jurisdiction. Boise, Idaho — which is about the same size as Spokane — had nearly half the killings per capita since 2013. Seattle, a city more than three times Spokane’s size, had less than half.

In 2022, a year when the police accountability working group failed to meet, three people were shot and killed by Spokane Police Department officers: Peterson Kamo, Dominic Spears and Robert Bradley. Read more about the circumstances of those deaths in this Emma Epperly article from the Spokesman Review.

According to the Spokane County Sheriff Office’s memorial page for fallen officers, there have been no SPD officer fatalities at the hands of a community member since 1983 when Brian Frederick Orchard was shot and killed during an undercover stakeout. The Officer Down Memorial Page, lists JD Anderson, who was assaulted in 1987 and died in 2019 as a line of duty death.

When asked about the police department’s continued high per capita rate of killings, Meidl’s answer focused first on the fallibility and free will of humans before addressing efforts to reduce police killings.

The reality is, we hire humans and humans are free to make that choice of violating policy, violating law, committing acts that everyone else that they work with disagrees with,” Meidl said.

Meidl emphasized that the department has instituted reforms that are aimed at accountability. “The steps that we've taken include the body camera video, as an example. It includes the chain of command review of all of our uses of force in all of our complaints. It includes civilian oversights.”

“We explain our expectations. We work to develop that culture of professionalism, that culture of integrity and that culture of compassion,” Meidl said. “But in the end, these officers will have that free choice of violating policies. I think what we also have demonstrated is that we will hold those officers accountable when they do that.”

After the press conference, RANGE ran into Archer, who was not allowed into the media availability, and asked them for their reaction to the press conference and chief Meidl’s statement.

“I used to work retail right there at the Banana Republic. If I messed up my job that meant that we might not sell enough pants that day. If I messed up my job really badly, we might lose a customer because I offered poor customer service and was rude to them. Everyone walked away alive. Everyone went on with their day,” Archer said.

“Police are people, but they are people who must be held to a standard and it's unreasonable to suppose that we should just accept the loss of human life and dignity as the cost of doing business — as sort of just a marginal inevitability.”

Next steps

In the end, those who began this process hoping it would yield relationships and trust are disappointed, and those who wanted meaningful reform quickly are still waiting. If either of the two are on the horizon, though, it may be reform coming first.

Though the final meeting didn’t take place, and Beggs expressed regret at the heartache the process ended in, he believes enough work was done to convince city council to make his reforms happen.

He intends to use the dot exercise the roundtable engaged in at their most recent meeting — which demonstrates broad support or at least openness to most of his 17 points, even among the police and city officials who were part of the roundtable — to work to implement the reforms.

“I can go forward to council members and the community and say we're on the right track of all these things when you let people privately rate things,” he said. “I feel like that is a piece of ammunition that we now have for reform that we did not have before this process. And frankly, that's why I agreed to the process.”

Beggs said he has already directed the council’s policy advisor to begin working out the details about how each reform can be implemented, so he can put these proposals in front of his fellow council members. To ensure they can overcome a potential mayoral veto, Beggs will need five of seven votes, which hasn’t been a problem with most law making in the last few years, but has been in the past with police reform.

Archer expressed disappointment that Beggs felt like he needed a work group exercise to persuade his colleagues when he could have rallied support from community members to pressure the council. “You don’t create policy in a vacuum and you don’t build support from your colleagues in a vacuum,” they said. “The community is the outside pressure that should be used to get those votes.”

As for the rest of the relationships that might have been built around that table in the last two years, politicians and activists struck very different chords. When asked about next steps, Mayor Woodward said the city needed to find new facilitators to continue the broken off conversations. “I think that there's value in having someone help facilitate these conversations. So, we'll have to go back and find the right individual to do that because these are difficult conversations and they can get out of control very, very quickly,” she said.

Robinson didn’t express the same interest in finding a facilitator and moving on with conversations. Robinson said he believes that to be in a real relationship with someone — especially when there’s a power imbalance like the one between police, elected officials and communities of color — you have to be open to hear the harms they’ve experienced, regardless of how it makes you feel. “Relationships are good,” he said. “But if you’re in a true relationship with me, you wouldn’t be pushing back this hard every time you hear something you don’t like.”

How to get involved

On February 9 at 5:30 p.m., the Spokane Human Rights Commission will be holding a community forum and asking for people to share their thoughts on how the commission can make Spokane more equitable and inclusive. The chair of the group, police accountability activist Anwar Peace, said that this group hopes to play an active role in driving community conversations about policing in Spokane.

Also, keep an eye out for the weekly CIVICS newsletter from RANGE, where we keep the community updated on the week ahead in public meetings. When it’s time for the city council to discuss and vote on police reform we’ll keep you in the know there.

Additional reporting by Valerie Osier

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