Almost a year after he was hired, Spokane’s police ombudsman on Monday was granted the power to investigate cases of officer misconduct.
The Spokane City Council voted unanimously to increase the ombudsman’s authority after the third hearing on the topic in two months.
Kiondra Bullock, executive director of VOICES, a group that advocates for low-income people, called the council’s decision “historic.”
“We still have a long way to go, but we are extremely encouraged by the changes here tonight,” she said.
Until now, Tim Burns could only monitor the Spokane Police Department’s internal investigations into alleged wrongdoing by reviewing police reports and sitting in on detective interviews. If he believed that a police review was unfair or incomplete, Burns was limited to asking the chief or mayor to order further review or to withhold his stamp of approval from the official police review. Now he can conduct his own review as well as sit in on internal investigations.
The change also will require Burns to write reports about each misconduct case. Previously, Burns was required only to write an annual report.
Council members warned that the change likely will be challenged by the Spokane Police Guild. They noted that the state Public Employee Relations Commission overturned an earlier form of the city’s oversight.
Councilman Steve Corker said that the pursuit of independent oversight may hurt the city’s ability to win financial contract concessions with the guild. That could result in more officer layoffs, he said.
“This will be challenged in court, and we accept that as a price that we have to pay to move forward,” Corker said.
In interview earlier this month with Spokane Public Radio, Guild President Ernie Wuthrich said the union likely would challenge any ordinance that expands Burns’ investigative power because it contends such changes must be approved by the guild.
Councilman Richard Rush said guild members should research the ombudsman rules rather than rely solely on union leadership’s interpretation.
“You have an opportunity when we pass this to commit an act of healing with this community that you serve and that is, not to challenge it,” he said.
City officials say they carefully crafted rules to ensure that working conditions that are subject to bargaining have not been changed. The council rejected a proposed amendment from Councilman Bob Apple that would have allowed Burns to force the police department to open internal investigations.
Shogan suspended debate for five minutes after the testimony of Jay Thielen, a local comedian who goes by the name Jay Wendell Walker. Some in the audience laughed at Thielen’s testimony, which focused on how some incidents have marred the city’s image nationwide.
After Shogan warned the audience about laughing, Thielen ended his talk by saying: “Oh, by the way, you’re a major part of my act for now on.”
There were more laughs from the chambers, prompting Shogan to slam his gavel and call for the recess.
Travis Melcher, whose mother, Beverly Saruwatari, a Hamblen Elementary teacher, died 20 days after she was arrested following a police confrontation at her home, told the council that independent investigatory power is essential to the ombudsman’s job. Family members believe that the stress from her arrest contributed to her death. Her story was detailed in a Spokesman-Review article that appeared in Sunday’s newspaper.
“It is not only our tax dollars, it’s the peace of knowing that we are truly living in a just society,” Melcher said. “I love you mom, and this is your justice.”