February 2, 2011 in City

Shawn Vestal: Ombudsman shows aptitude for his job, however defined

By The Spokesman-Review
 
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Background and the latest updates

The police chief has an excellent question about the city’s cops watchdog.

What, exactly, is Tim Burns’ authority?

Burns has a pretty good question of his own – though he would never put it this way: Why did police ignore the statements of witnesses who said cops roughed up a wayward motorist last summer?

There may be a good reason, Burns said. But the police department’s Administrative Review Panel failed to account for a “lack of nexus” between some of the witness statements and the decision to clear two officers, Burns wrote in defense of his decision not to certify the investigation into the incident.

“From the Ombudsman’s perspective, it appears as though the witnesses’ statements were not given serious consideration,” he wrote in a letter to Chief Anne Kirkpatrick.

It’s the first time we’ve seen public disagreement between Burns and the department, and the department’s response, in an S-R article last week, was half-defensive, half-dismissive.

Same as it ever was.

Except that Burns doesn’t see it that way. He’s in prime position to feel ticked off by the shrugs that greeted his complaint, but instead he’s giving Kirkpatrick and an internal affairs officer the benefit of the doubt. Kirkpatrick’s quibble was technical and legalistic, focused on whether Burns’ authority allows him to weigh in on the administrative review panel’s decisions, as opposed to just internal affairs investigations. She’s probably right, in a narrow sense, but wrong in the broad sense of the public interest.

I thought it showed bad faith. Burns disagreed.

“I’d say (it was) legalistic,” he said. “There’s clearly a question legally of whether I have the authority to take into consideration the administrative review panel. … I see their response as professional and of a technical nature.”

OK, then. Taking the long view. This kind of oil-on-the-water approach is why Burns is probably the right guy for a job where everyone wants more than you can possibly give. Police critics and those who favor stricter independent oversight – like me – want him to have a bigger stick. Police supporters are wary, if not hostile, toward anyone they deem unworthy of sticking a nose under the thin, blue tent.

And those who file formal complaints are unlikely to be satisfied by the kinds of middling results produced by the process. They like the fact that there’s someone to listen and take up their concerns, but rarely is the result as decisive or punitive as they’d like, Burns said.

But Burns actually might be laying the groundwork for something good, by adopting all the qualities that the debate over police in this town lacks: patience, politeness, respect, modesty.

It’s like nobody gave him the handbook.

Burns makes the case that it will likely take three years to get a “template” in place for handling all the different components of his job: seeking public feedback, taking complaints and reviewing how the department investigates them, making recommendations, compiling and analyzing data, and going out on major incidents as an observer of investigations.

It’s this last arena where police stumbled in July. After chasing down a driver – who had a suspended license and who at the very least appears to have given officers a whole lot of lip – a couple officers faced allegations of excessive force.

On an incident like that, Burns is supposed to be called out to the scene, under the city’s ordinance. He’s supposed to be present for interviews with witnesses, and given the chance to follow up with them himself.

The reasons for this are obvious, and it can only serve to strengthen the case for the officers when they do things right.

But the patrol sergeant did not call Burns to the scene. Eleven of 12 witness interviews took place outside his presence.

Burns declines the opportunity to scorch earth over this.

“I’m not sure the sergeant was familiar with the process,” he said. “I would say it was an oversight.”

Burns has only been on the job for 17 months, after all. They’ve only conducted training sessions for officers on how to involve him in critical incidents. How could the sergeant be familiar with the process?

“If it happens again, I will be less willing to accept that as the explanation,” Burns said.

The internal affairs investigator said witnesses differed over whether police used excessive force in the case, and that police statements were consistent. In a report to the chief, Burns declined to certify the investigation for three reasons: the interview issue, a lack of timeliness, and the administrative review panel’s failure to justify its decision to clear the officers.

Kirkpatrick did not return a call this week. What she told the S-R last week was: “I don’t look at it as a substantive issue. To me, it’s just a legal question: What is Tim Burns’ authority and is the (panel) part of the investigation?”

So, what now? Burns says he isn’t through. After a news report about the dispute last week, the person who initially complained – not the motorist, by the way – contacted the ombudsman again.

Burns plans to conduct interviews with that person and some other witnesses. Those may simply become “closing interviews” for the record, but there’s a chance that a new complaint will be filed.

“There’s clearly more work to do,” he said.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@spokesman.com.

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