June 5, 2009 in Opinion

Editorial: Ombudsman pick should come with explanation

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Spokane Mayor Mary Verner will soon name the city’s first ombudsman for the Police Department. When she does, the public deserves a detailed explanation for why she chose one candidate over the other two.

The three candidates were announced May 18, and they all seem well-qualified to sit in judgment of police work.

Greg Weber is a local attorney and former deputy director of the Washington attorney general’s Medicaid Fraud Control Unit. Tony Betz is a retired FBI official and an instructor at Texas A&M University. Tim Burns is a neighborhood preservation officer for Visalia, Calif., and a retired police officer.

Late last week and early this week, the public had a chance to meet the candidates at community forums. The three appeared together, and it was difficult to discern how they differed on how best to carry out the task. Either the format made it uncomfortable for them to disagree, or they truly are of similar minds.

None of them criticized the ordinance they would be operating under, though the ombudsman’s lack of power to launch independent investigations has been a point of contention. They agreed that it’s best to get an office established and then see what changes would be needed. They agreed that it would be important to establish respectful relationships with police, political leaders and the public. They agreed that educational outreach would be an important part of the job, because many people do not understand criminal statutes and accepted police procedures. They agreed that getting rid of bad officers and bad practices is also important.

There’s nothing wrong with holding mutual views, but it leaves members of the public with little information to form judgments.

The backgrounds of all three candidates should allay the fears of police officers who worried that criminal justice amateurs would be reviewing their work. But because they seem to be largely in agreement on the substantive issues, it’s difficult to decide which one would be best for the job. Presumably, the mayor will have the advantage of interviewing them individually, and their real differences can be fleshed out.

The selection of the ombudsman will start an important chapter in police accountability. The death of Otto Zehm and other cases have demonstrated a critical need to bridge the gap of distrust between law enforcement and the public. Beyond naming and praising her final choice, the mayor needs to offer specifics on what she expects from the ombudsman and how her selection embodies that vision.

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