The Spokesman-Review

Police union likes ombudsman choice

The president of the Spokane Police Guild said Wednesday he’s pleased with Mayor Mary Verner’s decision to name Tim Burns the city’s first police ombudsman.

“I just would hope that people would give him a chance,” said Detective Ernie Wuthrich, the police union’s president.

Pending approval by the Spokane City Council, Burns, the neighborhood preservation manager in Visalia, Calif., is expected to start work in August.

Wuthrich, who was on the committee that narrowed finalists to three, said he’s grateful that Burns has police experience and knows police culture, but he added that he believes Burns will not be afraid to criticize officers if they do something wrong.

“He seemed to be the kind of guy who wouldn’t be unduly influenced just because we’re cops,” Wuthrich said. “It seemed like he would consider both sides and come to a fair conclusion.”

A coalition of groups, including the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Sovereignty, Health, Air, Water, Land Society, asked Verner to wait to hire an ombudsman until after rules are changed to give the position the power to conduct independent investigations. A report conducted for the city in 2007 recommends that the ombudsman have such power.

The guild’s contract expires at the end of the year – making it an opportune time for the city to press for the extra ombudsman authority, proponents of broader ombudsman authority argue.

But city leaders have said they don’t plan to push for the change, and Wuthrich said the guild is unwilling to discuss proposed policy changes.

“We’ve got a good system set up right now,” Wuthrich said.

While Burns won’t have his own investigative powers, he will have the right to review internal investigations by the department’s Internal Affairs division. Wuthrich notes that if Burns finds the investigation lacking, he can ask the chief for a more thorough review.

“I’m pretty safe to say that the chief will honor that request,” Wuthrich said.

He said the guild opposed independent investigative authority because a city ombudsman wouldn’t be guaranteed to have the professional experience to conduct fair examinations.

But the coalition, pointing to recent police internal investigations that have cleared police employees, say the ombudsman’s current power is too limited.

“The public only views this as another example of police investigating police and clearing themselves of wrongdoing,” said the coalition’s letter to Verner. “The public gives this internal process no credibility and sees this as business as usual in Spokane.”



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