March 18, 2009 in Opinion

Smart Bombs: The oversight blues

By The Spokesman-Review
 
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If the city of Spokane can ever be bothered with a moment of introspection, it is going to look back on the past three years as a blown opportunity to build trust in law enforcement.

Pardon those of us who have grown a bit jaded over the lie about Otto Zehm’s lunge, the omission of the re-breather mask in police accounts, zapped digital photos in the firehouse sex scandal, the sudden discovery of a search warrant after losing a strip-search case in court and the erased 911 tape in the Shonto Pete shooting.

And law enforcement’s reaction to our reaction? How dare you call for oversight. You’ve never been a cop, so you can’t possibly know what it is like.

However, not even the powerful police unions could hold back the calls for an ombudsman office to replace the neutered citizens advisory group that took up exactly zero cases in 10 years.

Ah, but they could water it down. And so they did.

After bargaining with police unions, the city dropped independent investigations from the job description, gave two of the first four selection-committee slots to law enforcement and allowed police input on the fifth person.

Capt. Steven Braun is the Lieutenants & Captains Association representative on the panel that is culling candidates. His son is one of nine officers named in the Otto Zehm civil rights lawsuit. Steve Braun Jr. was the second officer to arrive at the Zip Trip convenience store on that fateful day. Think police oversight might be an emotional issue for the Braun family?

Good luck finding any entity that’s had this much input into its own oversight. It’s like Wall Street firms having a formal say on the next head of the Securities and Exchange Commission.

To punctuate this serial tone deafness, a few police officers celebrated with shouts and fist pumps when suspended Officer Jay Olsen was acquitted of criminal charges. Reasonable people can argue the legal aspects of that ruling, but Olsen should never return to law enforcement given his reckless behavior.

So three years after the death of Otto Zehm, we still have no resolution of an FBI investigation, no apology from the department and no strong oversight system.

But we do have an officer shouting to a violator of a string of police policies, “You’re coming home.”

Is this the part where we feel better?

Retention tension. How about those AIG bonuses? It’s like giving me extra cash for libel and errors.

“Crooks is going to be very important to us as we try to turn things around. We can’t afford to have him leave for … um, OK, there are no other jobs, but it’s just good business sense to retain him.”

Smart Bombs is written by Associate Editor Gary Crooks and appears Wednesdays and Sundays on the Opinion page. Crooks can be reached at garyc@spokesman.com or at (509) 459-5026.


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