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Ombudsman in ‘holding pattern’

Three months after Spokane Mayor Dennis Hession promised to “move forward quickly” to create a full-time civilian ombudsman to oversee police conduct, little has happened and a consultant’s report sits on a shelf.

There have been no public hearings or discussions of the ombudsman proposal by the City Council or its Public Safety Committee. A 2008 budget line item for a new ombudsman’s office hasn’t yet been proposed but is under discussion by the mayor’s Cabinet. The Spokane Police Guild has refused to take up the proposal until its main contract is ratified later this month. The ombudsman will be discussed for the first time at Monday’s Public Safety Committee meeting.

And so far, the topic of independent police oversight hasn’t been mentioned at public debates involving Hession and the two City Council members, Al French and Mary Verner, who both want to become mayor. All three, though, endorse the concept.

With no system for citizens to air their concerns, the local chapter of the NAACP this week asked for a meeting with Police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick to discuss the department’s use-of-deadly-force policy in light of three officer-involved shootings, two of which involved minorities. In one of those shootings, the officer was off duty.

A meeting has been set for next month.

Meanwhile, Kirkpatrick is dealing with reaction from the police arrests of 17 self-described anarchists in Riverfront Park on July 4. The chief has defended the actions of the officers, at least eight of whom were working that day on an SPD “tactical team” trained to deal with riots and other disturbances in large crowds. Critics say some of the officers harassed the anarchists before arresting them, violating their civil rights.

Some of those protesters and others at a follow-up demonstration on Monday carried signs asking “Who’s policing the police?”

City Council President Joe Shogan said he hasn’t heard any more about an independent ombudsman to oversee police conduct since the mayor’s April announcement.

“Certainly, with the events over the last year, it’s still a concept we’re willing to take a look at,” said Shogan, who’s seeking re-election. “I think the concept’s valid.”

On Friday, Verner said she and Shogan have asked Kirkpatrick for an update on the status of the police oversight issue at Monday’s monthly Public Safety Committee meeting.

“I’m very eager to put some mechanism in place. I’m trying to be patient until Monday, until we hear back from the chief. After that, I’m going to put something on the agenda so we’re not just in a holding pattern and we get some form of oversight,” Verner said.

At a recent, closed executive session of the City Council, Shogan and other members were told the mayor’s ombudsman proposal, backed by Kirkpatrick, has been stalled while city management executives and officers of the Spokane Police Guild negotiate a new contract. The Police Guild members have been working without a contract since Jan. 1, 2006.

Now, after two years of negotiations, a tentative contract has been drafted. The Police Guild will submit the proposal to its members for a vote on July 21, Guild President Ernie Wuthrich said Friday.

The issue of the ombudsman, he said, “was never on the table for either side.”

State law requires oversight systems to be negotiated with unions.

“The Guild was approached earlier this year about the ombudsman issue, and we advised the city that we would discuss that after the contract was settled,” Wuthrich said.

Details of the new police contract, including whether it will include retroactive pay, haven’t been released. The guild has not endorsed anyone for mayor.

Senior city officials say that if the contract is approved, negotiations could begin as early as next month on the ombudsman proposal recommended by Seattle consultant Sam Pailca, the former head of Seattle’s police oversight office.

The civilian ombudsman would be appointed by the mayor and would work separately from the police department to add “independence, transparency and professional review” and ultimately help build and restore public confidence. The police chief would still retain complete disciplinary control.

The Spokane ombudsman proposal would be similar to an eight-year-old ombudsman system in Boise, which was created after a series of officer-involved shootings.

Boise ombudsman Pierce Murphy said if a situation like the Riverfront Park anarchists’ arrests occurred in his town, the ombudsman’s office and not the police chief would be called upon to investigate the actions of police. The ombudsman would be able to assess what occurred in the park and issue public findings as to whether the police acted correctly or overstepped their authority.

“Without a doubt I’d launch an investigation immediately,” Murphy said.

Murphy wouldn’t comment when asked if he thought it was appropriate for Kirkpatrick to defend the actions of her officers, even before the investigation of the incident is completed by the city attorney’s office.

The Riverfront Park incident, as well as the NAACP letter, have caused phones to ring at City Hall.

“When you have a situation like this, it doesn’t just erode confidence in the police; it erodes confidence in city government as a whole,” said French.

On Friday, French blasted Hession’s handling of the ombudsman issue.

“The record with this mayor has been dismal when it comes to public safety issues,” French said.

The mayoral candidate said the recent Riverfront Park arrests show the need for creation of an ombudsman – a concept he first backed a year ago, before Pailca was hired.

French said he has complete confidence in Kirkpatrick but sees a need to take oversight issues to another level to build public confidence, while leaving discipline and firing determinations with the chief.

City Councilwoman Nancy McLaughlin said she, too, supports the proposal to create a police ombudsman, who could only be fired by a supermajority council vote.

“I believe that we are headed down the right path to have some sort of police oversight,” she said. “I have no problems with that direction at all.”

Putting an ombudsman in place “is going to require collective bargaining negotiations because of the change of working conditions,” said City Attorney Jim Craven, who has been involved in negotiations with the Police Guild.

Craven, appointed by Hession last year, said he’s hopeful the mayor’s timetable to have an ombudsman office open by early next year can still be met.

“It’s just going to help everyone to have a good system in place,” Craven said. “It’s a good concept.”


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