Panel Has Little Power Over Police Vague Guidelines Frustrate Members Of Citizens Review Commission
No one seems happy with the way Spokane’s Citizens Review Commission works.
A farmer who asked the police oversight board for help is angry because he feels his complaint went nowhere.
Members of the Spokane Police Guild say the panel violates fair labor practices, and they have filed a complaint with the state.
Police Chief Terry Mangan has accused the board of overstepping its bounds and stepping on his toes.
Even members of the commission itself are angry, saying their role is poorly defined.
“The ordinance is defective,” said Ben McInturff, a retired state Court of Appeals judge who sits on the commission. “We don’t have any foundation.”
City officials are working frantically to rewrite the guidelines that govern the Citizens Review Commission.
All this after the commission’s one - and only - case ended abruptly this week when a higher-ranking committee threw it out.
Citizens and elected officials had high hopes for the commission when Mayor Jack Geraghty appointed members to it in March.
The board, which was dormant for two years, was created so people who aren’t satisfied with the way the Police Department handles complaints against officers have a place to appeal.
Christopher Ostrander, a 40-year-old organic vegetable farmer from Davenport, Wash., was such a person.
Earlier this year, Ostrander accused Officer Tim Madsen of brutality. Ostrander said Madsen, who was working as an undercover drug detective at the time, attacked him without provocation after a traffic stop in Airway Heights on Jan. 23.
Madsen had spotted Ostrander near a suspected drug house in the Valley that day and followed him to Airway Heights. Ostrander said he was visiting the residence next door to the drug house.
Ostrander said Madsen pulled him out of his van by the hair and began beating him in a grocery store parking lot. Ostrander claims Madsen didn’t show him his police identification.
Madsen told his superiors he showed ID and that Ostrander was uncooperative and resisted arrest. He also said he feared for his safety because Ostrander reached inside a fanny pack and began to pull something out.
Mangan cleared the officer of any wrongdoing.
In June, Ostrander took his complaint to the Citizens Review Commission. In September, the commission recommended to the City Council’s Public Safety Committee that a special counsel be appointed to investigate Ostrander’s complaint.
The Public Safety Committee voted to pursue the matter.
“We unanimously, and I stress unanimously, agree with the findings of the Citizens Review Commission,” Public Safety Committee chairman Jeff Colliton said at the time.
Colliton then sent Mangan a letter requesting that the chief review his investigation and report back to the committee.
On Tuesday, after reviewing Mangan’s conclusions, the Public Safety Committee voted to drop the case.
Mangan told the committee that department policy allows officers to use force on people who don’t cooperate after being put under arrest. Ostrander was such a person, Mangan said.
The decision left Ostrander, who still faces criminal charges stemming from the incident, angry and confused.
“It seems to throw some doubt over the whole process,” he said. “Do citizens really have a voice or not? What happened to me was unacceptable. It shouldn’t happen in the United States of America.”
Some members of the Citizens Review Commission also were left shaking their heads and questioning their roles.
“We did what we thought we were supposed to do. We were told we did what we were supposed to do,” Mike Holmes said. “Then they left us twisting in the wind. I’m now left with no idea about what our job was in the first place.”
Members McInturff and Atara Clark also expressed frustration, saying they couldn’t get a clear picture about what happened in the Ostrander situation because accused officers aren’t required to testify before the commission.
“It really creates a kind of imbalance,” said Clark, who voted against Ostrander when the case was still before the Citizens Review Commission.
Similar complaints from citizens and officials sank Spokane’s previous police oversight board - the Citizens Review Panel - in late 1994.
Colliton said city officials are working to revamp the new Citizens Review Commission’s guidelines, and he hopes to unveil a “draft that everyone can live with” later this month.
But under the city charter, no city board - not the Citizens Review Commission, the Public Safety Committee nor the City Council - will ever be able to punish a Spokane police officer, Colliton said.
“The discipline of the individual police officer is the responsibility of the chief of police,” he said.
McInturff said he hopes the commission is at least given a little more power.
“I can tell you what our authority is now, and that’s zero,” he said. “But I’m going to stay on and see what happens. Maybe we can improve it.”