Spokane’s police ombudsman on Monday lost the power to independently investigate misconduct allegations against the city’s law enforcement officers.
The Spokane City Council voted 5-2 Monday to repeal police oversight rules it approved unanimously last year, blaming an arbitrator’s decision in July that determined the expanded powers violated the Spokane Police Guild’s labor contract.
Monday’s decision to revoke the expanded investigative powers, an issue debated for weeks at City Hall, came as U.S. District Court prepares for the opening of a criminal trial this week against Spokane police Officer Karl F. Thompson Jr., who is accused by federal authorities of using excessive force and lying to investigators in a 2006 confrontation that left an unarmed man dead. The Otto Zehm encounter was a driving force in the city’s hiring of a police ombudsman.
Although the city insists its officers did nothing wrong in the Zehm encounter, some members of the police department have since acknowledged that the department’s own investigation into the case was flawed.
All members of the City Council spoke strongly in favor of maintaining a police oversight system with independent investigative power, but the majority said the city had a better chance improving police oversight by repealing the ordinance and negotiating with the guild rather than heading to court to appeal the arbitrator’s decision.
Councilman Jon Snyder said if the mayor negotiates a contract that doesn’t include the extra oversight, the council can reject the contract. He and others said appealing the arbitrator’s ruling in Superior Court could draw out the issue for up to two years.
“This is the best course of action if you really want a strong ombudsman,” said Councilman Bob Apple.
But the two supporters of keeping the law on the books said relying on contract negotiations could take just as long. Council members Richard Rush and Nancy McLaughlin argued that if the council rejects a guild contract for lack of strong enough oversight, the issue likely would end up at an arbitrator.
Spokane Mayor Mary Verner said before the meeting that appealing the arbitrator’s decision would be a waste of money that could be used elsewhere in the budget. She said the guild has indicated that it would not consider the issue unless the ordinance was first repealed. Adding investigative powers to the ombudsman’s authority is a priority for her in negotiations, she said.
But McLaughlin said she’s concerned that the guild will want better pay or benefits in exchange for the rules. Given the projected $8 million deficit that the city will have to close to balance the 2012 budget, the city doesn’t have anything to trade, she said.
McLaughlin, who is the president of the Association of Washington Cities, also said that if the city lost an appeal, it would find more sympathy within the Legislature to change state law to allow a police ombudsman system without winning approval of police unions.
Liz Moore, of the Peace and Justice Action League of Spokane, noted that during contract negotiations with the guild in 2009, Verner said her priority would be keeping wages down to avoid layoffs in the department, not getting the ombudsman more authority.
“There’s no track record that negotiations with the guild is a better path than a legal remedy through the courts,” Moore said.
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