The Spokane Police Guild joined the “Make a Splash” campaign this week by donating $250 to help cover swimming fees for children at the city’s pools. That’s a nice gesture of community outreach, but the union could make a bigger splash by agreeing to more credible oversight of the Police Department.
The City Council is considering ideas for expanding the powers of the police ombudsman to allow independent investigations. Currently, the ombudsman, Tim Burns, reviews police reports but cannot conduct his own inquiries. In April, Burns issued his first report, which showed that 18 out of 19 cases he examined were “timely, thorough and objective.” No details of these reviews have been released.
This watered-down version of police oversight is the product of bargaining with the police union, but it doesn’t produce enough information to judge the actions of the Police Department or the ombudsman. It certainly hasn’t helped improve the image of the department.
At Monday night’s City Council meeting, several people spoke to the perception that the new job isn’t worth the time or money, because the ombudsman is handcuffed by the ordinance. City Councilman Bob Apple took a run at an ordinance that would expand the ombudsman’s powers and enhance his independence, but the fear of a guild lawsuit put that effort on hold. Other council members are interested in a stronger ordinance and have given themselves a month to produce one.
The frustration of many citizens is that the city attorney’s office has been inclined to find ways to say no rather than work on solutions desired by the council. Clearly, the city’s legal staff is afraid of a union lawsuit. And because of the 2009 negotiations that produced the current ordinance, the city may be wedded to that until the next bargaining round.
The guild would be doing itself and the city a big favor if it signaled a willingness to strengthen the oversight ordinance immediately. The horror stories of police misconduct that were aired Monday night were powerful, yet one-sided. This hurts the reputation of the department, because there isn’t an independent arbiter with broad enough powers to issue credible exonerating reports.
Rather than embrace this positive role for an ombudsman, the union has fended it off. The message that sends to the public is that an independent airing of police business would be even more damaging.
Whether the city can make progress next month or beyond, it must keep trying. The public isn’t buying the current system, and with good reason.