Though we must wait another week, the Spokane City Council looks to be on the verge of adopting a stronger police ombudsman ordinance. This is good news, because the community had grown skeptical of the current version, which doesn’t allow the ombudsman, Tim Burns, to conduct independent investigations.
Because the original ordinance was watered down due to worries over a police union challenge, the audience that attended Monday night’s council meeting grew wary when they heard that a new draft had been produced earlier that day. As the meeting stretched into Tuesday morning, the council voted to postpone a decision.
As it turns out, the new version still allows the ombudsman to conduct independent inquiries, rather than merely shadowing the probes of the Police Department. The late changes seemed designed to make sure that the ordinance can withstand a likely legal challenge from the Spokane Police Guild on whether the ombudsman will be involved with punishment decisions.
Both the original and new drafts state: “The OPO (ombudsman) shall not have a role in any disciplinary matter. All disciplinary decisions will be made by the chief (or designee).”
However, some council members were worried that a provision that would have opened up Internal Affairs investigations could be interpreted by the courts or the Public Employment Relations Commission as veering into disciplinary waters since Internal Affairs probes can lead to punishment. The new draft strikes that section, but it still gives Burns expanded powers to interview complainants and witnesses for his reports even if Internal Affairs has declined to investigate.
Currently, Burns can only review police investigations and determine whether they were “timely, thorough and objective.” Eighteen of the 19 cases he reviewed in his first year received that blessing, but the general public hasn’t been convinced that he has enough independence for those ratings to be meaningful. Burns reversed himself recently, saying that to be credible his office does need more power. In addition, the city has just established a website for the ombudsman to make it easier for citizens to file complaints or praise. We hope that one day it will also contain detailed reports of each investigation.
Burns’ request for more independence could be the tipping point for council members and the mayor. It should be, because he is right. He won’t be taken seriously until he is independent.