Office may be allowed to contact victims, witnesses in police complaints
An effort to expand the powers of the city of Spokane’s police ombudsman may go before the City Council on Monday night.
The proposed ordinance would allow Ombudsman Tim Burns to go beyond simply observing internal police probes and allow him to publish reports on those investigations – with a few exceptions – and contact the people who make complaints against police officers. He would also be allowed to interview witnesses of the incidents that led to complaints.
Currently, Burns can only monitor investigations into police misconduct and judge whether those reviews are “timely, thorough and objective.”
The changes, supporters said, were crafted to avoid a situation where city leaders would have to negotiate them with the Spokane Police Guild.
Burns “won’t be able to go out and punish officers. That is not the intent,” said City Councilman Bob Apple, the ordinance’s sponsor. “We get a lot of complaints with regards to the police department. I’m not saying they are justified. But we need an honest review process to get us the answers to the concerns.”
But Councilman Richard Rush said the effort doesn’t go far enough. He said he and council members Amber Waldref and Jon Snyder had been working on drafts of changes to the ombudsman’s role when Apple proposed the ordinance.
“So now we are left with something that is going to disappoint the people who are supporting it at best, and get us crosswise with the guild at worst,” Rush said. “The thing needs a lot of work.”
The City Council unanimously voted last fall on a resolution calling for Spokane Mayor Mary Verner to push for expanded ombudsman powers during negotiations with the police union. She spoke with union officials about it, but no changes occurred.
Asked Friday if she supports the latest effort by Apple to bolster the ombudsman’s role, Verner said she had no opinion.
“I can’t say I’ve actually read it,” Verner said. City Attorney Howard Delaney had yet to “give me a read about what the implications would be.”
Burns said Friday he had not seen the final version of Apple’s ordinance and couldn’t comment.
The scheduled vote comes the same week attorneys are scheduled to argue the final motions in the federal criminal case against Spokane police Officer Karl F. Thompson Jr., which is set to go to trial on June 2. Thompson is charged with using excessive force and lying to investigators about a fatal confrontation with mentally ill janitor Otto Zehm on March 18, 2006.
Federal prosecutors have alleged in court records that Spokane police covered up some aspects of the case, including leaving out damaging observations by some witnesses, misleading the public for months about how Zehm reacted and failing to point out potential evidence of lethal force to county prosecutors.
“It’s the Otto Zehm case that sparked the chief’s and the public’s demand for a change,” Apple said. “What we need to do is improve our public image.”
Former Mayor Dennis Hession and Chief Anne Kirkpatrick endorsed creating the ombudsman program in 2007. However, they said the details of the job had to be negotiated with the police union.
Under the current system, the ombudsman does not have the power to investigate alleged misconduct independently. If he doesn’t believe police work has been fair, he can ask Kirkpatrick for further review. If she refuses, he can ask the mayor to order Kirkpatrick to reopen the investigation.
But Breean Beggs, of the public interest law firm Center for Justice, has long argued that the ombudsman could conduct independent investigations as long as he or she doesn’t have the power to punish officers.
“Can he interview a victim or not? This (change) makes it clear he can. If someone is Tasered, he can talk to the victim or someone who watched it,” Beggs said. “But he can’t force an officer to talk to him alone. He does get to sit in on the internal affairs interviews of any officers if he’s notified about it.”
The other change would require Burns to make public reports of his reviews, Beggs said, “so the public, the mayor and the chief know what he feels about a particular incident. But the opinion can’t be used for discipline.”
Peace and Justice Action League of Spokane has scheduled a march at City Hall on Monday in support of Apple’s proposed changes.
“We know this ordinance does not bring us all the way home to a true ombudsman model,” said PJALS Executive Director Liz Moore. “But it’s another step on that path.”
Rush said he would prefer to wait and take a bigger step.
“I’m committed to change … but this does not get it,” he said. “I would like the whole enchilada. But it’s going to take more than this ordinance … to achieve that.”
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