January 30, 2011 in Opinion

Editorial: Police chief’s comment no help in establishing role of ombudsman

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The public knows the shaky history of police oversight in Spokane. It knows that the city used to respond to complaints against officers with intimidating countersuits. It knows that many officers are not pleased with the adoption of the Office of the Police Ombudsman and that this resistance led to that position having lesser powers than in other cities, such as Boise.

The City Council knew that the public was not content with this watered-down approach, so last summer it beefed up the role of the ombudsman, allowing him to be present when officers and witnesses are interviewed.

The intent of all of this was to answer public concerns that legitimate complaints against the department would not be swept away behind closed doors. What’s more, the Police Department itself is cognizant of the history of oversight and the intent of the ombudsman ordinance and its amendment.

Ombudsman Tim Burns has reviewed scores of citizen complaints and the department’s handling of them. In all but three cases, he has certified that they were disposed of in a timely and objective manner. He cannot be written off as some knee-jerk, anti-cop gadfly. So when he has a concern about the objectivity of departmental decisions in a use-of-force case, the police chief should not dismiss him.

Burns recently spotlighted such a decision in a report. The case involved Brian Greear, a 27-year-old man who was arrested in July on suspicion of drunken driving, resisting arrest and driving without a license. Greear claims he was handled roughly by two officers, including being slammed to the ground, which caused him to lose consciousness. Burns questioned the administrative panel’s rationale to exonerate the officers based on the available information. Some witnesses said Greear was handled violently, but Burns says their accounts weren’t sufficiently accounted for in the police panel’s decision. Based on this incomplete explanation, he declined to certify the internal investigation.

When asked about this, police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick replied, “To me, it’s just a legal question. What is Tim Burns’ authority and is the (panel) part of the investigation?”

This response completely misses the intent of the ordinance and disregards the public’s skepticism about police oversight. While it might seem like a legal question to her, the public still wants to know how the panel reached its decision. It would not be against the ordinance to supply more information about that.

Intent aside, the amended ordinance allows for the ombudsman to be present when officers and witnesses are interviewed. He may ask his own questions. Burns’ report in the Greear case notes that he was not notified of or invited to attend 11 of the 12 witness interviews. So there is also a question about whether the letter of the law was respected.

However, the larger issue is whether the department respects the existence of the ombudsman as the people’s representative. Or, as Burns put it, “If not me, then who?”

To respond to this editorial online, go to www.spokesman.com and click on Opinion under the Topics menu.

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