August 23, 2011 in City

Council debates oversight rules

Ombudsman changes may need voter initiative
By The Spokesman-Review
 
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Spokane City Council members suggested they may need voters to save the stronger police oversight rules they approved last year, by working to place the concept on the ballot.

Passions were high during the council’s Monday meeting as they discussed overturning police oversight rules. The debate included a few shouting matches between attendees and Council President Joe Shogan.

The Spokane City Council approved police ombudsman oversight rules in 2008 following a high-profile fatal encounter between Spokane Police Department officers and Otto Zehm in 2006. Last year, the ombudsman’s powers were strengthened by the council. The earlier rules were negotiated with the Spokane Police Guild, but the tougher ones were not.

The police union filed a complaint with the state Public Employment Relations Commission, which deferred a decision to an arbitrator. That arbitrator ruled against the city this summer and said that under state law, the rules must be repealed because they weren’t negotiated with the union.

Many of the council members suggested it may take an initiative brought by voters to allow the city to keep the broadened oversight rules.

“I want an ombudsman program, and I do not know if we’re going to get one,” said Councilman Bob Apple. “An initiative would solve the problem, but that’s the only way that I can tell you that I think it will be solved.”

On Monday, the council voted unanimously to decide on Sept. 26 if they’ll overturn the law, and to formally ask the commission if the arbitrator had the legal authority to decide the case.

Overturning the 2010 police oversight law would leave 2008 rules in place. The ombudsman would still be able to sit in on police investigations into police misconduct and rule whether those investigations were thorough and fair, but he would no longer be able to conduct independent investigations.

Council members outlined their strategy Monday night. It could include appealing the arbitrator’s decision to Spokane County Superior Court. Many council members suggested that they lobby the Legislature to allow ombudsman rules like Spokane’s to be enacted even if not approved by police unions.

Councilwoman Nancy McLaughlin, who is the president of the Association of Washington Cities, said the city will need residents’ help in lobbying the Legislature.

“Are you willing to fight with us?” McLaughlin asked.

Councilman Richard Rush said that after years of debate about police oversight, the council should not be afraid to stand up for the new ombudsman law.

“It’s time some council saw it through and brought it to a logical conclusion,” he said.

Shogan ordered one attendee, conservative radio talk show host George McGrath, to leave when he used the word “murder” when referencing Zehm. Another man, David Brookbank, later shouted from the back of the chambers for Shogan “to stop his abuse” of those who testify. Brookbank, who agreed to leave after his outburst, appeared to be frustrated that Shogan repeatedly mispronounced his name.

The council president said he objected to using the term “murder” without anyone convicted or even charged with the crime.

“I draw the line when you make personal attacks against other people,” he said.


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