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Editorial: Community demands ombudsman with clout

Spokane City Council members are pondering several options in response to an arbitrator’s July ruling that revoked new powers for the police ombudsman because the Spokane Police Guild had not been consulted. A heated, well-attended council meeting Monday shows that the public is tuned in.

The ombudsman’s office was created in 2008 and strengthened last year to give the ombudsman the ability to conduct independent investigations and to publicize the results. The Otto Zehm tragedy was the impetus behind its creation, and revelations from that case have confirmed the need for strong, independent oversight of law enforcement.

(By the way, this includes the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office, which would have benefited from having an independent office looking into the Wayne Scott Creach case; Creach was the pastor shot to death by a deputy. Too often the law enforcement community dwells on the possible downsides of an ombudsman, without considering the benefits of having a credible entity outside of law enforcement convey the news that officer-involved force is justified.)

The public has great cause for skepticism, because it sees a police union battling changes as if its rank-and-file officers had wrongdoing to hide. This widening public sentiment has motivated the City Council to search for ways to preserve the improved ombudsman ordinance.

The council is considering appealing the arbitrator’s ruling to the Public Employment Relations Commission, or lobbying the state Legislature to alter labor statutes so that it’s clear police unions need not be consulted on oversight. The council might also launch a ballot initiative to help build a public case for those statutory changes.

So what should the council do? Whatever it takes. The public has demonstrated its passion, and weaker versions of “independent” oversight have demonstrated the need.

What the council should not do is merely rescind the changes, return to the 2008 version and move on. It needs to demonstrate that it will continue to fight until the community’s reasonable demands are met.

Of course, the guild itself could provide smooth sailing by simply announcing it will embrace the changes and not make them an issue at the next round of collective bargaining. But if history is a guide, that’s not likely.

Legislators hold the key. Current laws are the reason no city in Washington state has a strong ombudsman’s office. The much-touted Boise model works, because Idaho statutes allow it.

Legislators should note that it isn’t just Spokane grappling with this issue. The U.S. Justice Department is investigating the Seattle Police Department over use-of-force complaints. And Seattle’s oversight entity – the Office of Professional Accountability – also faces public criticism for not having enough power.

Law enforcement’s credibility is taking a beating, but it shows no signs of shielding itself from self-inflicted wounds. We urge state and local leaders to step in and work on solutions, no matter how long it takes.

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