Spokane is moving slowly toward a new police oversight system.
A proposal for a new ombudsman’s office at City Hall will be presented to the Spokane City Council this spring, said Spokane Police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick.
Negotiators for the city and Spokane’s police unions are working on a plan for the oversight office that should be completed in February or March, Kirkpatrick said.
“I think the community, the City Council and the Police Department are in favor of independent oversight,” Kirkpatrick said.
But the police get a major say in how the system is set up – a fact that rankles some critics.
Under state labor law, any system established to monitor the police must be bargained with the police unions.
Otto G. Klein III, a Seattle labor lawyer who has done other legal work for Spokane, is bargaining for the city. “He’s top-notch,” Kirkpatrick said.
Chris Vick, an attorney for many West Coast police unions, is representing the Spokane Police Guild and the Lieutenants and Captains Association. Vick helped Spokane police unions get Spokane’s first police oversight board disbanded after former Mayor Sheri Barnard set one up in 1992 without police union involvement.
“In the world of labor law, (the attorneys) are both just really high up there,” Kirkpatrick said.
The police union membership will vote in March to approve or deny the ombudsman program. Kirkpatrick said she anticipates approval from rank-and-file officers.
If the unions approve, the program will be presented to the Spokane City Council, Council President Joe Shogan said.
There’s $200,000 in the city’s 2008 General Fund for the ombudsman’s office, Chief Financial Officer Gavin Cooley said.
The ombudsman has the support of Spokane’s new mayor, Mary Verner.
“The chief and I agree the ombudsman should not be in the Police Department,” but in an independent office in City Hall, Verner said in an interview last week.
Citing Kirkpatrick’s recent efforts to update Police Department policies and practices and the strict guidelines she’s established for officer conduct, Verner said she hopes the ombudsman will have few citizen complaints to deal with.
“I hope the ombudsman will be like the Maytag repairman – we’ll hardly need him,” Verner said.
Nonetheless, the ombudsman can have an important impact by analyzing trends in citizen complaints and studying “best practices” for police conduct, Verner said.
Sparked by controversy
The most recent calls for better law enforcement oversight in Spokane were triggered by a series of police controversies.
In March 2006, Otto Zehm, a mentally disabled man who was buying a burrito, died after being repeatedly shocked with police Tasers, bound and placed on his stomach on the floor of a Spokane convenience store.
Nearly two years later, the FBI is still investigating his death.
In February 2006, two police detectives ordered the deletion of sexually explicit digital-camera pictures of a city firefighter having on-duty sex with a 16-year-old girl.
And in January 2006, a delusional man suffering alcohol withdrawal died in the Spokane County Jail after fighting with guards and allegedly getting a “donkey kick” to the torso by John Elam, a jailer who was hired as a Spokane police officer. In February 2007, Kirkpatrick fired Elam for lying about wearing a seat belt when he rear-ended a vehicle, causing a four-car collision.
In a June 2006 series, The Spokesman-Review reported on Spokane’s decades-long – and unsuccessful – struggle to establish a meaningful police oversight system, comparing Spokane’s all-volunteer commission with the work of new, well-funded oversight programs in other Western cities, including Boise and Seattle.
Earlier panel hamstrung
Former Spokane Mayor Dennis Hession chose Kirkpatrick as Spokane’s new chief after a national search. She became police chief in September 2006.
Shortly after she arrived, Kirkpatrick referred a citizen’s complaint about the conduct of an off-duty police officer during a neighborhood fracas to Spokane’s Citizens Review Commission. It was the first time the commission had met in a decade.
The commissioners met behind closed doors and quickly tossed out the complaint, saying their hands were tied because the officer involved, Lt. Judi Carl, had already received a one-day suspension before Kirkpatrick became chief. City law allowed a review after a citizen complaint only if an officer had received no discipline.
Kirkpatrick quickly learned the ordinance establishing the commission was written so narrowly its work was hamstrung. She called for a new system of police oversight.
Following those controversies, the Spokane County chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, the League of Women Voters and the Peace and Justice Action League of Spokane sponsored three forums early last year on police oversight, inviting Kirkpatrick, police union officials and police critics to give their perspectives.
Kirkpatrick hired consultant Sam Pailca, a Seattle lawyer and the former head of Seattle’s police oversight board, the Office of Professional Accountability, to study a new system for Spokane and ask for citizen comment at two public meetings last February.
Pailca’s report, released in April 2007, said the Citizens Review Commission no longer has the trust of the public to monitor police misconduct and should be replaced by a full-time police ombudsman appointed by and answerable to the mayor.
“Maintaining the status quo is simply not a credible option,” Pailca’s report concluded. Kirkpatrick and Hession endorsed the report at an April 23, 2007, press conference and said they’d try to have a system in place by the end of the year – subject to union negotiations.
Mary Ann Tripp, a lifelong Spokane resident who formed a police oversight group in 1980 after her son was placed in a choke-hold by police officers and who attended last year’s forums, said she’s glad to hear that a concrete plan is in the works.
But Tripp said she’s troubled that Spokane will have to accept an oversight system negotiated by the police unions.
“It’s totally wrong to do that,” Tripp said.
The public has had its say in the meetings conducted by Kirkpatrick and the citizen groups last year, said attorney Breean Beggs, of the Center for Justice, a proponent of an independent police ombudsman.
“The community was heard. The onus is now on the city to have negotiated those concerns in good faith. We won’t know until we see the details,” Beggs said.