June 30, 2009 in City

Spokane City Council OKs police overseer

Ombudsman’s power, or lack of it, debated
By The Spokesman-Review
 
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Background and the latest updates

After years of debate, Spokane on Monday hired its first independent police ombudsman.

But exactly how independent and effective the new overseer can be remains part of a contentious debate.

About 10 residents told the Spokane City Council on Monday they’d waste city money by hiring Tim Burns, the neighborhood preservation officer in Visalia, Calif., as the city’s first ombudsman. The residents said city rules don’t give him the power to conduct independent investigations of police actions.

“We need real oversight and not just public relations,” said Teresa Torosian, a board member of the Sovereignty, Health, Air, Water and Land, or SHAWL, Society.

The six council members present at the meeting said they agreed Burns should have full investigative power like Boise’s police ombudsman. But they said the rules were crafted after long negotiations with the Spokane Police Guild, and the ombudsman is better than no ombudsman at all.

“If we don’t start this process, it’s not going to happen,” Councilman Bob Apple said.

The council voted 6-0 to appoint Burns to a three-year term. He will be paid about $95,000 a year. Council members also agreed that if Burns serves out his term without being reappointed, the city would pay for his moving expenses back to California or offer him a different position. Mayor Mary Verner noted that among Burns’ powers is the ability to participate in interviews during police invesigations of misconduct. He also will review police policies.

“I don’t support any further delay because I do want our community to have independent police oversight as soon as possible,” Verner told the council.

Officials blamed state law regarding bargaining with unions for the lack of independent investigatory powers.

Still, City Administrator Ted Danek said the city does not plan to put the issue on the table during negotiations between the city and guild for the union’s contract starting Jan. 1. Budget shortfalls will take precedence.

“Until we try the program, we don’t know that any changes are needed,” Verner said in an interview. “… There’s significant authority of the ombudsman in the existing ordinance.”

Spokane resident Marianne Torres said Burns, a former police officer, would be like “a fox watching the chicken coop.”

Council President Joe Shogan argued with Torres during her testimony and eventually asked a police officer to escort George McGrath, a frequent city council attendee, from the chamber after he could be heard commenting negatively from the audience.

“It’s an absolute whitewash,” said McGrath after leaving peacefully. “There is nothing that is being accomplished for the citizens.”

City Councilwoman Nancy McLaughlin said Spokane should have the same system Boise has and asked the audience to raise their hands if they preferred delaying a hire and risking waiting before an ombudsman position is created with full independent investigatory authority. But Shogan warned McLaughlin she’d be out of order if the poll was taken.

McLaughlin eventually supported the decision to hire Burns.

“I want it to get better, but I also don’t want to stop the process that we started,” she said.


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