June 17, 2009 in City

Pick for ombudsman is ‘approachable guy’

Mayor chooses longtime cop to oversee Spokane police
By The Spokesman-Review
 
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Background and the latest updates

Quotable

“My goal is to be the catalyst to solving problems, not necessarily the problem solver.” – Tim Burns,  who,

if approved by the City Council, will start in August

The mayor’s top choice for Spokane’s first police ombudsman looks more like a hippie than a former cop.

Mayor Mary Verner announced Tuesday that she selected Tim Burns, the long-haired neighborhood preservation manager in Visalia, Calif., for the Spokane office that will oversee police action.

“He’s a low-key approachable guy, and I think the community will be comfortable with him,” said John Olsen, a Spokane resident who attended three of the four public forums concerning the three finalists for the job.

Burns, 55, served as a police officer for 22 years in Los Gatos, Calif. After leaving the force in 1995, he worked as a painting contractor before implementing a code enforcement program in Hollister, Calif. Burns was hired by Visalia five years ago; his major duties there also involve code enforcement.

“My goal is to be the catalyst to solving problems, not necessarily the problem solver,” he said in a phone interview Tuesday night.

Olsen, who works with the homeless and mentors gay youth, said Burns’ appearance and his “kinder, softer and gentler” personality will help folks who have been mistreated by officers to come forward.

Verner selected Burns over Tony Betz, a retired FBI official, and Greg Weber, a Spokane attorney.

City Administrator Ted Danek, who was part of the hiring committee, said Burns has worked well with residents while strictly following the law.

Burns, who has a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from San Jose State University, also serves as a county administrative hearing officer, which considers zoning violations.

The Spokane City Council created the ombudsman position last year after questions arose over police conduct in several high-profile cases, including the death of Otto Zehm, a developmentally disabled Spokane resident wrongly accused of robbery who died after a police confrontation in 2006.

The ombudsman’s powers, which were written in negotiations between city officials and the Spokane Police Guild, do not include the ability to conduct independent investigations, as recommended in a 2007 report commissioned by Spokane police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick.

A coalition of groups, including the Peace and Justice Action League of Spokane, wrote to Verner last week asking her to push for greater ombudsman authority in negotiations with the Spokane Police Guild. The guild’s contract expires at the end of the year.

“We’re not willing to settle for less than the real accountability that the community deserves,” said Liz Moore, director of the Peace and Justice Action League.

“It does not make sense to pay tens of thousands of public dollars for a position that doesn’t have the authority to accomplish what we need it to accomplish.”

Attempts made by The Spokesman-Review to reach Verner were unsuccessful Tuesday evening. Danek said changing the ombudsman’s powers is not a priority in the city’s upcoming contract negotiations with police.

He added, however, that priorities could change.

City Council President Joe Shogan said now is not the time to press for broader ombudsman powers.

“We should wait to see how it works,” Shogan said. “We’ve got other matters to negotiate with the guild right now.”

Breean Beggs, executive director for the Center for Justice, which is representing Zehm’s family in a lawsuit against the city, said an ombudsman with limited powers is better than no ombudsman at all.

“People have felt intimidated because they have to go to a police officer to complain about police officers,” Beggs said.

Beggs added, however, that Spokane leaders should demand oversight as strong as that which exists in many other cities, such as Boise.

“My hope is that the city is still planning to improve the contract … and if not, that citizens will speak up and insist that they do,” Beggs said.

Burns said he’s OK with the city’s decision not to push for greater oversight in the short term.

“I have total confidence in the chief, the city administrator and the mayor, as well,” he said. “They’re people of strong character and leadership. They’ll do their part if I do mine.”

The City Council still must confirm Verner’s choice. If it does, Burns said, he expects to start in August.

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