This year, we asked each of the candidates running for office in Spokane if the police ombudsman should have more or less power to independently investigate alleged police misconduct. Here are their answers.
Ben Stuckart, incumbent candidate for Spokane City Council president: Since the new ordinance went into effect we still have not had an instance where the new measures implementing independent investigatory authority have been used. I do not believe until we see how the current law works we can judge whether it is appropriate or not.
John Ahern, candidate for council president: Did not provide answers.
Mike Fagan, incumbent candidate for council district 1: I believe that the Ombudsman program has not been given a fair opportunity to work the way it was designed in Spokane due to the issues it has faced with the commission member controversy and the lack of Ombudsman. I have been contacted by citizens who have had dealings with this program and the results have been 50/50. I firmly believe that the Ombudsman program is one of, if not the most important board or commission we have in the city because it truly belongs to the citizens for purposes of ensuring police accountability and re-establishing trust between the citizens and the police.
Randy Ramos, candidate for council district 1: The Police Ombudsman needs to have the ability to carry out independent investigations of police misconduct. I believe it needs to be a priority of the city’s to work this issue out appropriately with the Spokane Police Guild so that the new ombudsman will be able to work effectively.
LaVerne Biel, candidate for council district 2: The police ombudsman should be empowered to independently oversee any citizen complaints against the police department. I see it as a citizen advocate position.
Lori Kinnear, candidate for council district 2: The position needs more power to investigate, but before that happens the position needs to be reevaluated as to whether it is working as the voters intended. Having the position vacant for almost one year is not acceptable. We need to fill the position, and then put safeguards in place to avoid a prolonged vacancy in the future. The OPO Commission recently recommended hiring one of the final applicants for the position to be interim Ombudsman. That may require an ordinance change.
Karen Stratton, incumbent candidate for council district 3: More. The citizens wisely voted for more authority. The administration simply has failed to make it happen.
Evan Verduin, candidate for council district 3: Proposition 1 was passed in 2013 by a significant majority of Spokane voters and it is our responsibility to follow through with such an important call to action. In addition to adding the office of the Police Ombudsman was also the power to investigate alleged police misconduct independently of the police department. However, according to strong Washington State labor laws, negotiated labor contracts supersede local regulations, thus the investigative authority must continue to be negotiated with union leaders regardless of the charter language. I support continued efforts to negotiate such authority in future contracts.
Finally, our mayoral race profile dug into the issue of the police ombudsman, but here are their answers to the question.
Spokesman-Review: Should the police ombudsman have more or less powers to independently investigate alleged police misconduct?
Spokane Mayor David Condon: Two pieces. One is I supported the charter amendment to allow this type of oversight. I also, secondly, believe that I negotiated the most independent oversight in the state of Washington. The decision of whether they should have more independent to me is one that we need to take to the state level and change state law. If we did that, I think it would put the parameters on there that would be necessary for that.
I’m frustrated that we don’t have an ombudsman. I’m frustrated with the progress there, or the lack of progress there. But I think we should allow it to be implemented and look at how we enhance it after we put it in place. As you look across the state, the only other one that would be similar is Seattle. The reality is that it is an internal affairs division with a civilian appointed director, Pierce Murphy. That’s who their ombudsman is, and he answers to the mayor, not to a separate citizen advisory board.
I’m frustrated with the progress of the ombudsman, but I think we have to appreciate the sheer independence of our ombudsman commission. The efficiency you may get with the mayor’s office running it, you would lose the effectiveness of independence.
You’re saying the framework is there. You’ve just had trouble putting people in place.
Once the positions are filled, we’ll have robust oversight?
Condon: I think we should implement it and if we find that it’s not getting the independence the citizens want - I believe that legally we’re not going to be able to change it at the local level. We’re going to have to change it at state law. This would have to be at the top of the city’s legislative agenda, and look at the nuances of how you can compel somebody not in a court system to testify. That’s in essence what you’re asking them to do. This is a quasi-judicial hearing. Because it’s not fully judicial, the review of the legal analysis I’ve seen would lead us to not being allowed to compel somebody because you’re not in front of Superior Court judge. That’s the trigger, as I see it in common man’s language, not maybe legal. Let’s also remember that labor law trumps city law, and that’s the precedent we have set in this state.
And here is the answer from Shar Lichty, who is challenging Condon.
Spokesman-Review: Should the Spokane Police Ombudsman have more or less powers to independently investigate alleged police misconduct?
Lichty: The ombudsman needs more power if we want to bring the city into compliance with the charter. We don’t have truly independent investigative authority. I was in the interviews for the three ombudsman finalists, just as a citizen. When the ombudsman commissioners did their interview, all three of the finalists were very strong in their statements about the ordinance not being in compliance with the city charter. If those three finalists get it, I don’t understand why the office of the mayor doesn’t get it. And City Council for that matter. They approved the ordinance. We do not have independent investigative authority, as mandated by the city charter. That’s what the voters approved.