May 25, 2010 in City
Spokane City Council delays police oversight decision
Legal issue stalls proposal to expand ombudsman powers
Two dozen people urged the Spokane City Council to let the city police ombudsman listen to someone other than police about police misconduct, but a confidential legal memo stood in the way Monday.
Councilman Bob Apple was the lone opponent of an effort to delay for a month any decision on his proposal to let ombudsman Tim Burns conduct his own investigations into complaints of police misconduct.
Apple told the rest of the council he would vote no because of the secret nature of “that information you touted so heavily.”
If the council failed to take action, Apple said, city staff members “have snowed you.”
Councilwoman Nancy McLaughlin said she had been prepared to vote for Apple’s proposal until a couple of days ago, “when we received some other information on what this may cost the taxpayers if this isn’t done correctly.”
McLaughlin said in an interview that she referred to a confidential memo from assistant city attorneys Mike Piccolo and Pat Dalton.
McLaughlin declined to discuss the details of the legal advice, but said council members are “tired of them telling us that we can’t do it,” and told city attorneys to “help us come up with something.”
“I think now we’ve got our legal department on board,” McLaughlin said, adding that the “last thing” the council wanted to do was to pass an ordinance without support of the lawyers who would have to defend it.
Councilman Jon Snyder said the problem facing the council is that Washington law defines “working conditions” – which are subject to collective bargaining – very broadly.
Also, he said the state’s open public records laws are a problem. The ombudsman’s investigations would be subject to public disclosure, but witnesses should be able to testify “without fear of it becoming public,” Snyder said.
Police reports also are subject to public disclosure once an investigation is complete, and court testimony is public.
Snyder said he was “particularly touched” by David Edwards’ testimony Monday about being so afraid during a traffic stop on Martin Luther King Day that he wet himself.
Snyder said he trusts Edwards, who is a coach, with his son’s safety.
Edwards said he was stopped for an allegedly improper left turn and wound up with officers pointing guns at him even though he has no felony record.
He said he filed a complaint with the ombudsman’s office and got only a single-sheet letter stating that his case had been closed.
Edwards said all Burns could tell him was “the police won’t allow me to do anything.” Burns “wouldn’t even talk to my witnesses,” Edwards said.
“This is all I got out of my investigation,” Edwards said, wadding the letter from Burns.
“I would love to get my money back,” Edwards said, reflecting other comments that Burns’ salary is a waste of money. “This man has done nothing for me.”
Kiondra Bullock urged the council to “err on the side of the people” for a change.
“People are dying,” she said. “I don’t want to be next.”
And Bullock said she felt she had a better chance of dying at police hands because she’s black and can’t hide it.
Attorney Terry Sawyer told about showing the video recording of mentally ill janitor Otto Zehm’s fatal encounter with police to Zehm’s mother so she wouldn’t have to watch it on television by herself.
Were it not for the convenience store security video, the only record would have been the very different account officers gave, Sawyer said.
Several council members – including McLaughlin, Snyder, Steve Corker and Council President Joe Shogan – said they were moved by the testimony.
They vowed to take action in several weeks.