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Police oversight a campaign issue

Sun., Aug. 5, 2007

In most elections, candidates for office in the city of Spokane face a basic question about police: Are there enough of them to do the job? Candidates might argue yes or no, but the debate centers mainly on the budget.

This year, however, police and politics collide in a different way, as candidates are being forced to discuss how police are doing their job.

A string of controversies – from the possible mishandling of a sexual assault at a firehouse to a mass arrest in Riverfront Park and, most recently, a suicide on the Monroe Street Bridge – is forcing candidates to take a stand on the right way to police the police.

“It is not trivial by any measure,” City Councilwoman and mayoral candidate Mary Verner said recently. “Chief (Anne) Kirkpatrick is doing a good job, but the problem just doesn’t go away.”

Public concern seems to come in waves as each controversy breaks, Verner said. It was intense in the days after the July 4 arrests of young adults who carried signs critical of police practices. One protester faces felony charges of assaulting a police officer; as many as 16 face misdemeanor trespass charges, and more than 50 attorneys from around Spokane have volunteered to help with the defense, saying police overreacted and violated the protesters’ right of free speech.

The arrests prompted a second demonstration, which ended with nearly 100 protesters marching from an intersection near the Public Safety Building to City Hall for a chance to address the weekly City Council meeting.

“There are varying opinions of what did and did not happen” in the park, Councilman and mayoral candidate Al French said. “You would expect that. You’ll never have a criminal say, ‘Yep, I’m guilty’ and never have a police officer say, ‘I’m wrong.’ “

Public concern about the need for police oversight seemed to die down in late July until police used a Taser as part of their strategy to keep a man from jumping off the Monroe Street Bridge. He jumped to his death before police could stop and subdue him.

“It’s a persistent issue,” Verner said.

Mayor Dennis Hession said he agrees with Kirkpatrick that the July 4 arrests are the type of incident best reviewed by a police ombudsman. Hession called for such a position in April, after a study by an outside law enforcement consultant hired by Kirkpatrick recommended it.

“In terms of the public’s concern, I think (police oversight) is a high priority for the citizens,” Hession said.

French contends Hession was slow to grasp the issue, saying he’d proposed an ombudsman the previous August, shortly after Otto Zehm, a mentally disabled janitor, died in police custody.

“I started looking at what other communities offer in terms of oversight,” French said. He concluded that an ombudsman with expertise in police procedures – a system used in Boise – would be preferable to a citizen oversight committee, the system which Spokane had but never used.

“It’s got to be a professional for the police to have some faith in the results,” French said. “That takes it out of the volatility of wherever the community might be at a given time.”

Hession counters that French’s proposal last August wasn’t well-developed and didn’t have all the information the city needed to make a decision. The right process, he said, was to ask the new chief for her input and bring in the consultant she supported to come up with a system “specifically responsive to Spokane’s needs.”

“This is not a cookie-cutter concept but the best system for Spokane,” he said.

Verner said that while she supports hiring an ombudsman to investigate complaints, she thinks the city will need a citizens committee to hold hearings at some point in the process.

“I would like to see a combination,” she said. “If we don’t have a citizens committee, the citizens will still feel left out.”

One of the problems with the July 4 arrests, Verner said, has been the public’s frustration about the lack of a forum to air concerns. Demonstrators who came to the City Council meeting had to wait through a long council agenda, then were limited to one minute each because the meeting ran so late. Kirkpatrick discussed the arrests with the council’s Public Safety Committee a few days later, but, under standard committee rules, public testimony wasn’t allowed.

Verner said she suggested the Human Rights Commission hold a public meeting on the July arrests.

A fourth candidate for mayor, Mike Noder, said he’s still studying different options for police oversight. While he believes an ombudsman with expertise in police work might be more efficient, a citizens oversight panel would be acceptable if it had the authority to investigate complaints.

“Fundamentally, I think we need independent oversight,” Noder said. “I absolutely believe there should be independent oversight for every department in the city.”

Robert Kroboth, a fifth candidate for mayor in the Aug. 21 primary, doesn’t respond to media inquiries. On his Web site, he criticizes police for violating citizens’ constitutional rights and promises if elected “things will change or there will be some firings.”

Even though an ombudsman seems to enjoy widespread support among Kirkpatrick, the mayor, council members and many candidates, that’s no guarantee the city will have one soon. State law requires the city negotiate the acceptance of that system with the Police Guild, the union that represents officers.

The city was in protracted contract talks with the guild when Hession proposed an ombudsman in April, and the union declined to allow the city to add that to those long-term negotiations. That contract goes to the guild this week, and if that agreement passes, city officials hope to begin new talks over an ombudsman shortly.

While there’s no guarantee that the guild will agree to adding that type of oversight to their work conditions, most candidates believe police will welcome a system that is properly designed.

“They want fair citizen oversight” and will support an ombudsman over a citizens review panel, Hession said. “I get the sense they would want the sophistication and air of objectivity of an ombudsman.”

He thinks the city and the union can come to an agreement in a few months and have an ombudsman in place by early next year.

No mayor can force an ombudsman on the guild, Verner said. But she suspects their real fear is “people with an anti-police agenda being given authority.”

French said the city has to be willing to go to mediation if necessary to get an ombudsman, but he’s not sure that will be necessary as long as the city proposes “a system that they can have confidence in.”

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