February 11, 2009 in City

Ombudsman search starts

Panel will recommend three finalists for police oversight position to mayor
By The Spokesman-Review
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Background and the latest updates

The city of Spokane has begun the search for a police ombudsman, a position that got strong public support after several recent controversies, including the 2006 death of mentally disabled janitor Otto Zehm in a confrontation with police.

The job will pay $77,130 to $94,628 annually. The successful applicant will be appointed for a three-year term and can be reappointed to a second three-year term. The deadline to apply is Feb. 27.

“The person we choose will face many expectations from the community and should be prepared to get right to work,” Mayor Mary Verner said Tuesday in a press release.

The Spokane City Council approved an ordinance last fall to create the Office of Police Ombudsman.

Police unions endorsed the ombudsman position in June in a 121-4 vote after negotiations between the city and the Spokane Police Guild and at the urging of police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick.

Spokane has struggled to establish a new model for a civilian oversight body to replace a panel of citizen volunteers that rarely met and had little power. The renewed push for independent oversight followed several recent incidents, including Zehm’s death in March 2006. The FBI is still investigating Zehm’s death.

Some citizen groups and the Center for Justice, a nonprofit law firm, have criticized the ombudsman ordinance, saying it is too weak for effective police oversight and doesn’t give the ombudsman the powers recommended by Sam Pailca, Seattle’s former police oversight chief and an independent consultant hired by Kirkpatrick in 2007.

A five-member committee will oversee the selection. Two members were chosen by the city, one by the Police Guild, one by the Lieutenants & Captains Association and the fifth member by the other four.

The city’s choices for the committee are City Administrator Ted Danek and attorney Nancy Isslerlis, of Winston & Cashatt. Police choices are Detective Ernie Wuthrich, Spokane Police Guild president, and Capt. Steve Braun of the Lieutenants & Captains Association. The four selected George Critchlow, an associate professor at Gonzaga University Law School, as the fifth member.

The committee will recommend three candidates to Verner. Her choice is subject to council approval, but the ombudsman will report directly to her.

The ombudsman can’t be removed from office except for misconduct, incompetence or negligence.

The public will get a chance to ask questions of the three finalists in a series of public meetings before Verner makes her choice, the city said this week.

Reach Karen Dorn Steele at (509) 459-5462 or at karend@spokesman.com.

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