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Opinion

Sun., April 22, 2007

Our view: Police Oversight

While Spokane Police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick ponders the recommendation for an ombudsman’s position to oversee her department, it would serve other city leaders well to visit the Web site of Boise’s ombudsman, at www.boiseombudsman.org.

It brims with information and fulfills one of the chief tenets of any successful police oversight solution: transparency. Pierce Murphy, who has held the position since its inception in 1999, can be proud of his commitment to keeping Boiseans informed.

In Boise, residents get a detailed annual report on the cases that the ombudsman and his independent three-person staff have reviewed. They can also learn what changes in policy and practices the ombudsman has recommended for the Police Department and whether those have been accepted.

It’s quite a culture shock from the close-to-the-vest operating style of Spokane and its police – a style that has helped breed cynicism and mistrust among residents. To her credit, Kirkpatrick has begun to throw open the windows, but to keep the air fresh she should either endorse the position of ombudsman or recommend something similar.

She has said that whatever the system, she wants to dole out her own punishment. An ombudsman position wouldn’t preclude that, but the public would know whether it happened and why – or why not. Similarly, when the ombudsman recommended a change in department policy, the public would know the substance of the proposal and whether it was accepted. From there, the media – or anyone – could pursue matters.

For instance, the Boise ombudsman made this recommendation in 1999: “Consider procedures and training that direct officers in their encounters with people who suffer from mental illness or emotional stability.” The department responded with increased training.

On the other hand, this recommendation was turned down on the advice of city attorneys: “Closely scrutinize the practice of searching a deceased subject’s home, especially in cases where the subject was killed by law enforcement officers.”

Both examples should resonate with anyone familiar with the Otto Zehm case. With an ombudsman, the public can be assured that such things have been considered, even if they are ultimately rejected. It adds a measure of accountability and might give pause to leaders who think their decisions will be kept under wraps.

But merely creating the position isn’t enough. The city would have to hire someone with the courage to inquire without fear or favor and the curiosity to pursue the best practices in law enforcement. One of the keys to the Boise system is that Murphy has become an expert. We suspect that if Spokane already had such a position, the Police Department wouldn’t be sideways with the courts on its strip-search policy. Or, in this case, its lack of one.

The cost of the position is a legitimate concern. The annual budget for the Boise office is $269,000. But if the city of Spokane were to take on a learn-from-its mistakes posture, it could save money on all those countersuits it files against residents with legitimate legal cases.

It’s too late for the city to reject oversight and say, “Trust us.” This position, or something like it, is the only credible answer.



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