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Sun., Sept. 14, 2008

Our View: Past week shows why police ombudsman imperative

On Sept. 22 the Spokane City Council will take testimony on a proposed ordinance to establish an ombudsman for police oversight. That’s nearly 16 months after then-Mayor Dennis Hession conceded the old way wasn’t working. A couple of recent events highlight the need for an independent watchdog.

A police officer reported that another officer assaulted a man after he was chased down and handcuffed. John P. Luna was being pursued after he struck a car while driving a stolen vehicle, police say. He told police he was not resisting arrest but was still kicked in the chin.

First, credit goes to the police officer who reported the incident and to detectives who interviewed Luna and officers and recommended a criminal charge against Boothe. So far, this counts as progress compared with incidents such as the Otto Zehm case. Zehm, a mentally disabled janitor, died two days after an encounter with police officers at a convenience store. In that case, the acting police chief immediately sided with the officers and conveyed an inaccurate account. A revelatory video was suppressed for nearly three months.

The allegation against Boothe was investigated internally because police administration and the union agreed on that course in misdemeanor cases. “Obviously, we would feel that they would be very impartial,” said police spokeswoman Officer Jennifer DeRuwe.

Obviously, they would also feel that way if it were a felony case, but those are handled by outside investigators for the purposes of credibility. When word got out that Boothe might be punished, morale sagged and suggestions of “de-policing” arose. An ombudsman would have greater immunity to such pressures.

In another matter, Senior U.S. District Court Judge Fred Van Sickle dismissed the city and police officers from a civil lawsuit filed by a teenage girl who said she was raped by a firefighter at a fire station. The judge was focusing on whether the girl’s civil rights were violated when evidence of a possible crime was destroyed at the direction of police. An police officer told the firefighter to delete sexually explicit photos.

The judge was persuaded that the officers were trying to help the girl by making sure the photos weren’t passed around. Officers could have accomplished the same thing and preserved the evidence by confiscating the camera, but they were under the mistaken belief that possession of the photos was not a crime.

In the context of the civil case, Van Sickle’s ruling could be solid, but the fact that law enforcement was not up to speed on child pornography laws does not instill confidence. A key task for an ombudsman is to check whether a police department is keeping up with changing laws and instituting best practices.

This past week serves as another reminder of why it is imperative that the city establish credible police oversight.

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