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City Council backs strong police oversight

Tue., Oct. 20, 2009

Verner urged to include ombudsman in negotiations

The Spokane City Council sent a message Monday to Mayor Mary Verner: Push for stronger independent oversight over police.

In a unanimous decision, the council requested that Verner negotiate with the Spokane Police Guild to give the new police ombudsman the power to conduct independent investigations into police misconduct.

“No one should be afraid of the truth,” said Councilman Bob Apple. “This is as much of a benefit to our police department … as it is to our community.”

The resolution is a request to the mayor that she can choose to ignore, but it signals increasing pressure on Verner and the Police Guild on the oversight issue at the same time the city is asking the guild to agree to wage concessions to help balance the budget.

In light of the resolution, Verner is shifting her previous stance on the issue. Previously, she said she wouldn’t put the investigatory power on the table during current contract talks because it would complicate an already troubling financial picture.

“If the majority of the City Council thinks that’s an important item, then I’ll convey to the guild that it is an important item,” Verner said on Friday, adding, “It’s not the highest priority for the negotiations that are going on right now.”

About 10 people testified on the resolution. Most said giving the ombudsman investigative powers is crucial to restoring credibility and citizen trust in the department.

“I don’t even feel like filling out a complaint if (the ombudsman) can’t do nothing about it,” said Shonto Pete, the Spokane resident who was shot in the back of the head by a drunken off-duty police officer in 2007. That officer resigned just before he was to be fired. A jury earlier acquitted the officer of assault charges.

Responding to a letter written by the ombudsman, Tim Burns, suggesting investigative powers should be a long-term, not short-term, goal for the position, Pete added: “I don’t think that we should have to wait until something really bad happens.”

The resolution was suggested to the council earlier this month by the Peace & Justice Action League of Spokane, the Center for Justice, and the Sovereignty, Health, Air, Water and Land, or SHAWL, Society. It passed on a 6-0 vote. Councilman Steve Corker was absent.

Though all backed the resolution, some warned that negotiating for the powers would come with a price. “If you want the guild to agree to investigatory powers in negotiations,” said Council President Joe Shogan, “then they will want something in return.”

Spokane’s rules allow the ombudsman to take complaints and forward them to the police department’s internal affairs office. He also can monitor the investigation by reviewing reports and sitting in on detective interviews. If he doesn’t believe police work has been fair, he can ask the chief for further review. If the chief disagrees, he can ask that the mayor order the chief to reopen the investigation.

Spokane Police Guild President Ernie Wuthrich said the ombudsman is independent and was granted significant authority.

The ombudsman is “there during the whole process,” he said.

But some argue that the position should have the power to conduct investigations independent from the department rather than relying on information gathered by officers. At a council candidates debate that aired last week on KSPS, all six vying for office said they supported the formal request that Verner seek expanded authority for the ombudsman.

Councilman Mike Allen said he expects that investigatory power would have a cost in negotiations, but there would be an important benefit.

“Accountability for our citizens is a key function of government,” he said.

Center for Justice attorneys question whether the city needs union permission to add investigatory power to the ombudsman because the position doesn’t decide discipline.

Chief Anne Kirkpatrick said Monday that when she became chief, “the hue and cry of the community” was to make the department transparent and to create an ombudsman position that’s independent of the police force. “To me the objective has been met,” Kirkpatrick said.

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