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FRIDAY, MARCH 14, 2008

Real oversight

Two years ago, Otto Zehm, a mentally ill janitor, died after a confrontation with several officers at a convenience store. Public outrage grew intense when video called into question the actions of the police and refuted the department’s account.

Since then, all signs have pointed toward the department and the city learning their lessons. A new chief with refreshing viewpoints was hired from outside the community. The old Citizen Review Commission was roundly panned. Then-Mayor Dennis Hession embraced the idea of an ombudsman’s office to oversee the Police Department. So did his chief rival and ultimate replacement, Mary Verner.

The city’s budget for 2008 included $200,000 to establish an ombudsman’s office after a consultant hired by Police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick endorsed that system of independent oversight. The office was to be modeled after the successful one set up in Boise. Verner, from her position on the City Council’s Finance Committee, approved.

Now that she’s mayor, Verner says the city cannot afford the position as originally envisioned, noting the sagging economy and a not-so-rosy budget outlook. Plus, she noted, Spokane doesn’t have the same revenue as Boise. So she is floating the idea of contracting for the service to lower costs.

Sorry, but oversight lite won’t lift the heavy burden of public mistrust. The city dug a deep hole with the previously ineffectual oversight system and a legal strategy that aggressively countersued aggrieved citizens. The only way it can climb out is to keep firm to its commitment for accountability.

All of the reasons offered for scaling back oversight were available when the ombudsman’s office was initially endorsed. Near-term budget deficits were forecast. Other funding challenges loomed. Economies always go up and down.

The argument that Boise has more revenue was even true back then, though it should be noted that Spokane spends more on its police department than Boise spends on police and oversight. The city just hired 12 more officers and plans to hire 12 more next year. It also added 10 Fire Department positions and has made other hires recently.

By its budgeting and hiring practices, the city’s priorities are revealed. Full-scale oversight doesn’t measure up. Well, it needs to. It might even save the city money. In the past decade, the city has had to pay out $2.5 million in police-related claims. That doesn’t count the possible payouts in cases involving Zehm and an illegal strip search. A full-time ombudsman’s office can head off such costs.

Kirkpatrick told the public that the previous system “wasn’t serving your needs and it wasn’t serving my needs.” Police oversight is a huge task. The city owes it to the public and police officers to do it right. Let’s not cheapen the memory of Otto Zehm with oversight lite.

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