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Shawn Vestal: Police oversight one thing, accountability another

Good news from the Spokane Police Guild: Despite appearances to the contrary, they’re not actually opposed to independent oversight of misconduct complaints.

I know. I was shocked, too. Somehow, I’d gotten the notion that, rather than not being opposed to a real ombudsman with true investigative authority, the police officers’ union had actually … opposed it. Opposed it every step of the way. Opposed it so much that they undercut the city’s year-old ordinance giving the ombudsman the ability to actually conduct his own investigations.

I guess I misunderstood all that.

“We’re not closed-minded as far as changes to the ombudsman ordinance,” said Ernie Wuthrich, guild president, in a recent news story.

And yet “not closed-minded” somehow doesn’t quite add up to “open-minded.” Neither Wuthrich nor Sgt. Joe Walker of the Spokane Police Lieutenants and Captains Association is ready to actually support an independent investigative authority outside the Spokane Police Department, something which is only, oh, desperately needed.

“We need to be careful about how we put that language together so that it protects the integrity of all investigations,” Wuthrich said. “When you start opening the door for the ombudsman to have independent investigative authority, what are you really talking about? … That needs to be defined by the city and guild.”

It’d be nice if it didn’t have to be defined by the guild, actually. It’d make a whole hell of a lot more sense if it didn’t need to be defined by the guild in any way, shape or form. But, stupid as it is, the city has included ombudsman rules in contract negotiations with the guild and now has proceeded – with some reason – as though it must continue to do so.

So here we are, stuck with the guild’s lack of understanding.

What are we really talking about?

Here’s a little help: We are talking about having an investigator who can look into allegations of police misconduct, without needing an OK from the investigated, and produce reports that are available to the public.

Everyone knows this. It is supremely uncomplicated. The idea is not failing here out of some lack of clarity. It is failing because the guild is fighting it.

Spokane adopted a new ombudsman ordinance, which granted the ombudsman the ability to conduct his own investigations, a year ago. The guild fought it and an arbitrator ruled that the expanded ombudsman ordinance violated the guild’s contract. The City Council, rather than spending more money on a court fight, backed off and undid the ordinance, though most everyone on the council seems committed to pursuing this kind of accountability.

Still, Wuthrich and the guild keep saying they’re not opposed to independent oversight. It’s kind of hard to understand.

“If there’s no problem, then why aren’t we there yet?” asked Councilman Richard Rush. “What are we waiting for?”

Rush, whose faith in the guild was such that he voted to take the matter to court, notes that the guild is entering contract negotiations. If they truly are open to this, now’s the time to prove it.

“If you don’t have a problem, show us the road map to adoption” of a tougher ordinance, he said. “Come to the table. Let’s do it.”

Important as the ombudsman is, the battle over police accountability goes deeper. We need a whole department that accepts accountability.

Sam Walker is a professor at the University of Nebraska and an expert on police oversight. He wrote a paper in 2005 about a notorious incident in Los Angeles, titled “What Real Police Accountability Looks Like: The ‘120 Shots’ Incident and the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department Response.”

In the “120 Shots” incident, deputies fired repeatedly at a moving car they believed was being driven by an armed suspect from a previous crime. The driver was hit twice; he was eventually found to be unarmed and an unlikely suspect in the earlier incident.

The police believed, in their understanding of the totality of the circumstances, that the man in the fleeing car posed a threat to them. They were wrong.

What happened next is almost impossible to believe.

The deputies union apologized to the community.

You read that correctly. Recognizing that some of their membership had overreacted and damaged its relationship with the public, the deputies did not start playing defense. They did not try to explain how necessary all those shots were. They did not salute the officers in court.

They apologized. All of them. Even the ones who had nothing to do with it, and even though they were careful, legally, not to admit wrongdoing.

The sheriff changed the department’s use-of-force policies within weeks. He disciplined 13 officers within a month.

“The response reflects a general culture of openness and responsiveness in the LASD, one that is quite different from the traditional ‘circle the wagons’ and deny any wrongdoing response,” Walker wrote. “In the end, this is what real police accountability looks like: acknowledging mistakes, promptly and openly imposing appropriate discipline, taking immediate preventive steps, having in place a process for identifying problems and initiating corrective measures. This is a style of accountability that other law enforcement agencies can and should emulate.”

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@ Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.