Spokane’s police ombudsman has reversed his stance and is asking city leaders for the right to examine allegations of police misconduct independent of the Police Department’s own probes.
When the topic was debated last year, some city leaders, including Mayor Mary Verner and City Council President Joe Shogan, had questioned the need to expand the ombudsman’s powers, in part, because Ombudsman Tim Burns wasn’t requesting it.
But in an interview this week, Burns said he now believes that the ability to gather his own information and conduct interviews would help give his office needed credibility.
The Spokane City Council is scheduled on Monday to consider allowing Burns to gather information on his own, separately from the Police Department’s Internal Affairs division, when Burns disagrees with the police chief’s decision that no further investigation into alleged misconduct is needed.
Other changes would:
•Require Burns to write a report for each case he works on or observes. Currently, he is required to write an annual report and can only decide if police investigations were “timely, thorough and objective.”
•Expand the definition of “critical incidents” to include cases where Tasers are used or the SWAT team deployed. Rules require the ombudsman to be contacted immediately after a critical incident so he can begin observing police investigation. Currently, critical incidents only involve incidents when police use of “deadly force” results in death or serious injury.
The City Council last month tabled a proposal to give Burns even more authority to conduct independent investigations, after city attorneys sent council members a confidential memo about the ordinance. The city refused to release the memo to The Spokesman-Review. In response to the newspaper’s public records request, Deputy City Clerk Laurie Farnsworth wrote that the document is privileged communication that can remain private under state law.
Council members say that the main legal concern regarding changes to the ombudsman rules is whether they are a change in working condition that must be approved by the Spokane Police Guild. They say the new draft is constructed so that the ombudsman’s work isn’t construed as police discipline. That’s why the power to conduct an independent investigation would kick in only after the chief closes the case, said Councilwoman Amber Waldref.
“I believe that the current draft that we’re working on is in a much better position to go through that process (of a union challenge),” said Councilman Jon Snyder.
Attempts made to reach Detective Ernie Wuthrich, the guild’s president, were unsuccessful. In a report that aired this week on Spokane Public Radio, KPBX-FM, Wuthrich warned that the guild will challenge the ordinance if the council approves it.
Councilman Bob Apple, who introduced the measure last month, said he’s concerned the new version is watered down. A coalition of groups, including the Peace and Justice Action League of Spokane, helped write the version Apple sponsored. A news release sent this week by the coalition argued in favor of the broader investigative powers in the earlier version.
But Councilman Steve Corker said he believes last month’s proposal would not have survived a challenge.
“What (the Peace and Justice Action League of Spokane) is asking for cannot be granted under state law,” Corker said. He added that the new proposal “demonstrates a commitment by the council to do everything it possibly can to increase his investigative powers.”
Burns currently is allowed to monitor investigations into alleged police misconduct 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 the mayor to order the chief to reopen the investigation.
Burns said he has been allowed to see the full police investigations into officer misconduct, but if a complainant alleges that police neglected to interview important witnesses, he should have the right to do so. In his first year on the job, Burns declared 18 of 19 internal investigations into police actions to be “timely, thorough and objective.”
Breean Beggs, a civil rights attorney who until recently led the Center for Justice in Spokane, said he believes the ordinance considered last month also was written to survive a possible challenge from the guild. He said he prefers the earlier version but added that both would increase police accountability, especially considering provisions such as the requirement for the ombudsman to write reports about each incident.
“Either way, that’s a pretty substantial improvement,” he said.