Q&A: Spokane Mayor Lisa Brown on policing, homelessness and budgets

Brown chatted with Cascade PBS about her approach to a $50M city deficit, gaining community trust and the 50th anniversary of Expo ’74.

Portrait of Spokane Mayor Lisa Brown

Lisa Brown has completed the first 100 days of her term as mayor of Spokane after defeating former Mayor Nadine Woodward. (Rajah Bose for Cascade PBS)

Spokane Mayor Lisa Brown entered office in January with a long to-do list.

On top is figuring out how to close a $50 million budget deficit. Brown has to balance the budget while tackling several big issues — housing affordability, homelessness and substance addiction — that have festered in Spokane for years, generating plenty of political discourse.

Just before reaching the 100th day of office, Brown sat down with Cascade PBS to talk about the work she has done so far and her approach going forward to resolving these issues and moving on to other goals.

This is the second in a two-part series looking at Spokane Mayor Lisa Brown's first 100 days in office. You can find part one by clicking here

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. You can also listen to the abridged version aired on the Northwest Reports podcast below.

Cascade PBS: You’ve been mayor for almost 100 days. Tell me about what you feel your administration’s main accomplishments have been during these first few months.

Brown: I have spent the first 100 days putting together my leadership team. It is not complete, but it is nearly complete.  Among the things that we’ve done is we’ve brought on a new chief financial officer. I have an assistant city administrator for public safety. And that’s been a very key role, given some of the main priorities that we have. We are engaging in a search for police, new police and fire chiefs. In the meantime, I have an interim fire chief, actually, the first woman who served in that role in Spokane, and an interim police chief. 

I have had literally dozens of meetings, internal and external, to essentially check on the perspectives that I had coming into office, from the year of the campaign and 1,000 doors knocked on and many groups that I met with during that past year. And that has been everyone from community leaders in a whole variety of communities, nonprofit providers, as well as business owners and real estate developers across the spectrum.

And the main thing that we have initiated so far is a community safety workgroup that has launched a couple of key initiatives. One of those is related to coordinating co-responder outreach to homeless individuals. So we have both police and fire and nonprofit outreach teams, but they have not been coordinated on the same page, or filling in the gaps for complete coverage across the city and, and 24/7. 

So we’re working on a big coordination initiative. And we were able to achieve a million-dollar appropriation from the Legislature for street medicine outreach that will help with this initiative. The second public safety initiative we’re calling the high-utilizer initiative, looking at individuals who are in the emergency room and our criminal justice system kind of frequently. We’re working with law enforcement, courts and providers on how to have those individuals both identified and then assessed for what a good outcome could be for them [and] trying to end this revolving-door pattern that they’re in. That is not good for them and also very costly for the city. 

On the housing and homelessness front, [we’re] kind of on two tracks there. One is, again, coordination of the providers. And we were left with a bit of a gap. There was no plan for how to handle the cold weather that came right after I was sworn in. So I declared an emergency on homelessness and was able to deploy some resources to set up some emergency warming centers. And we're working to build a different plan for next year.

Lieutenant Cal Lindsay, left, and the firefighters from Station Three give Mayor Lisa Brown a tour of their facilities and answer some questions. (Rajah Bose for Cascade PBS)

You just mentioned that you’re still in the process of finishing your leadership team. In particular, that includes hiring permanent fire and police chiefs. I wanted to get a sense of your priorities for the new police chief and new fire chief.

So as of right now, we have just completed internal surveys of the departments. That information hasn’t been compiled yet. But we’ll get information soon on priorities from within the organizations. And we have a set of community meetings that are planned. That will happen in each city council district, and [we] will have a set of community engagements to get community priorities. We’re bringing into the process a set of priorities around rebuilding trust in the community, because that has been frayed, I think, over the last several years.

We definitely want to bring a focus on eliminating racial disparities throughout the criminal justice system, which isn’t just within the police, it’s much broader than that. And looking at data and bringing that to the forefront as well. And we also are looking at staffing and appropriate staffing models. And that is because the community has expressed a preference for Neighborhood Resource Officers that were eliminated in the last administration. So in general, someone who is a good communicator, and who is open to innovative practices from around the country, as well as open to working with us to pull new resources in because, frankly, I was also left with a pretty significant structural budget deficit. Labor contracts were negotiated by the previous administration, but there wasn’t the right sizing of the budget to really cover the obligations that were put forward. So I’m going to need leadership that can also help me grapple with those budget challenges and prioritize where to invest.

There has been some concern over gun violence in Spokane over the first few months of this year, including several incidents involving Spokane police officers. Recently, Spokane County Sheriff John Nowels says that media coverage of those shootings was unfairly critical of law enforcement. Do you agree? And what will you and your administration plan to do to address this issue?

I don’t necessarily agree with the sheriff. And keeping in mind that is the county, but the city has also had those incidents. And we definitely are looking to explore whether or not best practices are being used with respect to the number of officers that arrive at situations and their training for de-escalation techniques. And I think that is something that we have already seen in the preliminary information coming from the survey, that the officers themselves are very open to additional training.

There’s a process when there is an officer-involved shooting; an agency looks into the shooting and determines what actions need to be taken. Do you have any thoughts on whether that process needs to be reformed? Or if changes to the agency are needed? 

There was overwhelming public support for the creation of the Office of Police Ombudsman and the Office of Police Ombudsman Commission. [Author’s note: The Office of Police Ombudsman is staff-based and works closely with the Spokane Police Department’s Internal Affairs department to look into potential investigation of a police complaint. The Commission comprises community members who oversee the work of the Police Ombudsman and can request further investigation if the ombudsman and the police Internal Affairs department’s positions differ.] One of the issues I am looking at is the powers that the Office of the Police Ombudsman Commission has and whether or not they should be strengthened. I understand that much of that has been pulled into collective bargaining contracts. And so strengthening those powers may need to happen at the collective bargaining table, which I’m definitely committed to doing. The independence and ability to fully investigate on the part of the [Office of the Police Ombudsman and Office of the Police Ombudsman Commission] is really important. And that is something that I definitely plan to continue to work on.

Mayor Lisa Brown talks with Alex Scott, her chief of staff, at the end of a cabinet meeting at City Hall in Spokane, April 2, 2024. (Rajah Bose for Cascade PBS)

Let’s jump right into the topic of homelessness. Obviously, that was a key part of your campaign. As you mentioned earlier, you have a lot of plans to address this issue. Recently your administration received criticism for a shortage of available shelter beds, particularly during the first week of March when temperatures fell. Dawn Kinder, your director of the Neighborhood Housing and Human Services Division, told media outlets that this issue is a result of a lack of funding. Going forward, how do you plan to address this key funding issue?

We’re looking at both the model and the resources. Currently, the city has two congregate shelters, one downtown and one in an industrial area. That was very controversial because it was essentially a warehouse [Author’s note: Brown is referring to the Trent Resource and Assistance Shelter, which opened in 2022 and can be expanded to hold upward of 400 people] that was converted into a congregate shelter. We’ve made it clear that we intend to close the warehouse and transition to a different model. It will be smaller and more dispersed in terms of sites. And that assessment is underway. We have someone conducting a shelter audit right now. So that looks across the spectrum of providers with respect to their current capacity and potential future capacity for shelter beds.

The model that we are hoping to implement is not just about congregate shelters. It is similar to a facility that was developed with the assistance of [the Washington Department of] Commerce, actually, when I was commerce director before I came to the city. The facility is known as Catalyst. It’s run by Catholic Charities of Eastern Washington. It’s a model in which people have individual rooms and are at the place where they’re in some kind of counseling or treatment. 

It’s more like transitional or interim housing before they go to permanent supportive housing. And it’s proven to be very effective [and] certainly more effective than the previous situation. So we hope to create more capacity in that kind of facility. 

This transition is going to be complicated. So we’re working with the City Council, hopefully to get the flexibility to create the new types of facilities we want at the same time. Clearly, there are budget constraints here. That’s pretty significant. But part of the good news is that, again, we were successful in the legislative session, with a $4 million appropriation to assist us in this transition period.

And the previous administration closed some shelters. Reopening those shelters [is] on the table. We did temporarily reopen the Cannon Street shelter that the previous administration had closed, and we utilized it as one of the emergency warming centers. And we’re still in an evaluation period of how that facility might fit into our continuum of housing and service options.

During the campaign, you talked about the creation of a navigation center, a centralized place that would triage people who are unhoused. Where are you in terms of developing that system and that center?

We’re looking both at the data part of it, and … the facility part of that. And it’s not clear if we need one facility or a set of facilities that accomplish the same functions. But we’re assessing that right now. We’re looking at available or possible locations. I will say that the community is, in general, sensitive to the potential negative impacts of a facility in their neighborhood based on previous experiences. So that does make locating a new facility challenging. And even though I think the experience with the Catalyst facility has been effective and has not had major impacts on the neighborhood, the expectation as it was starting was quite polarizing. And there was quite a substantial pushback from that neighborhood, which I think shapes the conversation going forward.

The conversation on solutions to homelessness and housing people has always been kind of polarizing in this community. What do you think is key to getting community buy-in and engagement — which seem to be the key to getting some of these projects off the ground?

Many of our emergency warming centers were in churches, and they were in neighborhoods. And the model was that they were utilized as overnight warming shelters, with a maximum of 20 people. Some had more specialized populations due to specific medical or other types of needs. And I would say, in general, that process went quite well. And volunteers would talk to people in the neighborhood, as the church was being opened, and many times neighborhoods got involved in volunteering with food and other items of clothing, and so forth. So this smaller, more dispersed model did work with respect to emergency warming shelters.

The other issue is when facilities are brought into a community, there [needs] to be good-neighbor contracts that are signed between the operators and the neighborhood association. And we need on the city’s part to do our part with respect to neighborhood impacts, whether that is with respect to our code enforcement, cleanup teams, or law enforcement, if necessary.


Mayor Lisa Brown’s schedule is demanding, leaving only moments between meetings to keep up with communications from her office at City Hall. (Rajah Bose for Cascade PBS)

The previous administration really leaned into being part of a regional homeless authority. There was a lot of work on that last year, though the City Council ultimately decided to table that concept. Do you see your administration and the Council revisiting a regional homeless authority?

I would like there to be regional cooperation and potentially a regional entity, but we’re just not there yet. I needed to jump in and get some things happening. The formation of the regional authority would have meant essentially moving resources and a lot of time into the creation of a whole new governing authority. And that just couldn’t be my priority. 

Right now, we at the city have some really major issues we need to take care of. We need to be ready for next winter. And we definitely need to repair the budget before we transfer resources and personnel into another entity. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t the potential for regional cooperation. 

We’re having conversations with both county officials and [Spokane Valley] officials. I think we’re fairly close to a very positive agreement on utilizing mental health funds that the county receives in partnership with some city enhancements with respect to that co-responder model that I mentioned. In this case, it’s co-responder teams in the fire department. And also a new medical-assisted treatment that fire teams are going to be able to administer on site when people  overdose or have addiction issues. 

So that’s a very positive interaction that’s going on with the county right now, as well as our combined interest in additional crisis stabilization. Facility capacity. And so we are partnering on that project as well.

Recently there have been concerns regarding increased opioid use, including among the homeless population. I know that the City Council’s first step was to collect data to get a better scope of the problem. What data does the city need?

Well, we definitely know that this is a crisis and having a significant impact on people’s lives. I agree that the regional health district could be playing a more significant role in collating and disseminating the data to help create wider awareness. And it may be part of sounding the alarm. I did send them a letter expressing that view. I also have just recently looked at our opioid settlement dollars, and have made a proposal to the City Council about deploying some of those funds. They essentially were just sitting there. There’s also been the formation of a regional opioid council. … I have appointed someone to that, but it does not appear to be moving very rapidly. And so I believe we should go ahead and employ our city resources as soon as possible.

Can you give more details on your plans to address the crisis? 

We are looking at, again, the expansion of the co-responder teams. And it’s not just the teams itself, but it’s what happens after the response. The follow-up is done, essentially, with a social-work casework team. And that program in Spokane, in the fire department, is called Spokane Cares. And my proposal for utilizing opioid settlement funds is to expand that Cares team so that in fact there can be more specific follow-up of individuals. We are also looking at how medications are utilized or not utilized in the county jail. My team is preparing a letter to essentially register our concerns with the county and the sheriff about how the county jail addresses people who are addicted in the jail with respect to providing them appropriate treatment, and giving us a window of time when the individual is relieved of the kind of the suffering of the craving, in order to work with them to get them into appropriate services, and treatment and recovery.

It sounds like the key is to catch people dealing with addiction early? 

My understanding is that people thrown into jail or detox involuntarily aren’t in the right physical or mental frame of mind to really enter recovery. But there are medication-assisted treatments that can relieve … at least physical withdrawal symptoms for a period of time long enough to maybe establish a stronger connection with the individual to make the likelihood of successful treatment.

Memorabilia and memories from Lisa Brown’s time in government, including meeting Barack Obama while he was a U.S. Senator. (Rajah Bose for Cascade PBS)

This year Spokane is celebrating the 50th anniversary of Expo ’74. Spokane will be on display for residents and visitors through a series of events over a two-month period. What would you like to highlight or show during this time?

Spokane was the smallest city ever to host the World’s Fair. And it was a tremendous accomplishment in terms of how people pull together and how the city was physically transformed. Literally, the railroad yards on the banks of the river were removed, and the city created an amazing park central to the city. And it reinvigorated the whole downtown core. 

It highlights one of the most important aspects of the city, which is the river and the connection to it. The 50th anniversary celebration is going to highlight that environmental theme, but it’s also going to highlight our tribal connections. And our neighboring tribal nations as well as our substantial urban Native population is going to be very engaged in this celebration. There’ll be a powwow and a salmon release. There will be numerous free and family-friendly events for people to take part in. And I think it will also be an opportunity for us to think about what are the commitments or initiatives we want to make for the next generation.

Let’s look toward the future. How have your first few months in office shaped your approach and your priorities going forward to the rest of 2024 and the remainder of your term?

A member of my cabinet recently said that we have a lot of plates spinning, and that is correct. Like I came in with a lot of ideas and enthusiasm and there was a lot of openness to change in several areas. And so a lot of things are underway. We need to demonstrate that we can move those through implementation, which is a lot harder than just coming up with good ideas. 

And then I’m hopeful that we get a chance to transition towards some of my other priorities, which relate to early learning and child care, and relate to pulling together our great higher education institutions and really focusing on our workforce issues as well. So there are other priorities. But I understand that we need to take some of the initiatives that we’ve already launched and really see them through. The first 100 days have been about that, about discerning how to do that.

Spokane has a lot of great fundamentals – the river, the outdoor activities, great neighborhoods.  It has some significant challenges. And some of those are not easy for a local government to change – you know, we have a significant percentage of our population that’s economically insecure. So we’re going to do our best to connect them to services and opportunities and to create more housing, to help relieve some of the pressure there. And I think that right now, there is a fairly positive sense that we can pull together and make change happen in the community. So I’m gonna capitalize on that honeymoon period and try to get as much accomplished as possible. 

Mayor Lisa Brown leaving an event in the Catalyst Building on Eastern Washington University’s Spokane campus, April 2, 2024. (Rajah Bose for Cascade PBS)

Throughout this interview, several times, you’ve mentioned the challenges of funding and the budget. That’s a factor in every aspect of running the city, whether law enforcement, housing or homelessness. How will you and your administration address this budget challenge?

Well, the first thing my cabinet did was look at options and places where we could create efficiencies or make reductions or not fill vacancies. We will implement some of those suggestions; however, I believe we need a public safety and community resiliency levy. I am presenting that to the City Council. It is up to them to put it on the ballot. But I would like to see that happen. And I think that is the right way to both maintain the level of key services here, the key stuff that cities do – streets and utilities and stormwater treatment, snowplowing the streets, but also taking on some of these challenges related to community safety, community health and housing. We definitely, I believe, need this levy to pass.

What do you think will be key to getting community buy-in? Because as you mentioned, some households are economically challenged.

Transparency and communication. I think that’s the key. I immediately came out and started talking about the significance of the budget deficit and how it was larger than I had even anticipated during the campaign. We are communicating with the City Council and the public on what the service-level reductions would look like as well as listening carefully about the things they would like to see improve. The levy that we put together will embody both of those things.

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