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Wed., Oct. 12, 2011

Editorial: A weakened ombudsman won’t help police image

The Spokane City Council has been forced to rescind the strengthened police ombudsman ordinance and pin its hopes on the next contract negotiation. The council consulted an attorney and looked at other options, but came to the conclusion that this was the most prudent decision.

The underlying problem is that the Spokane Police Guild sees an ordinance that creates more credible oversight as an imposition rather than a benefit. Guild leadership will say a contract is a contract, and that’s what this battle was about. But if the city were to suddenly announce that it wanted to raise the pay or benefits of police officers, would union leadership push back with, “Sorry. See us during the next round of negotiations”?

Of course not. Somehow, they’d find a way to expedite matters.

Clearly, Spokane police officers, or at least enough of them, believe a stronger ombudsman office is not in their best interests, and that is truly sad. The public wants it; city leaders want it. But guild members have isolated themselves by pouncing on the ordinance without a single example of how an outside investigation had harmed them. They never gave it a chance.

So now that the issue returns to the next contract negotiation, the union will probably want some new benefit in exchange. And that, in turn, will widen the wedge between the police and the public.

It’s baffling that the union cannot see credibility and community support as beneficial. Police officers need it. They don’t have enough of it. All the complaining about that being an unfair perception only deepens public suspicion. After the Otto Zehm incident and others, the public is justifiably in “show us” mode. If officers have nothing to hide, then who better to convey that news than an independent messenger?

We implore the union to ponder its Pyrrhic victory. The rescinding of the ordinance granting investigatory powers to the ombudsman will weaken the police department’s credibility. The “contract is a contract” line isn’t persuasive. What the public needs is some indication that the union accepts the need for stronger oversight. Turning that into a bargaining chip won’t accomplish that.

Besides, the city has nothing to give. It faces an $8 million shortfall, with about 80 percent of its expenses tied up in employee costs. Furthermore, the Police Department is already understaffed. Does the union really want to trade more officers for stronger oversight?

The frustration with these all-important negotiations is that they’re conducted in private, despite the tremendous impact on public services. The truth is that the city’s taxpayers treat police officers very well. The difference between what they’re paid in salary and benefits and what the community can afford contributes to the perpetual budget shortfall and the slashing of services.

The bottom line is twofold: the city has no more to give, and what the union is resisting would be beneficial to its members and the community.

It’s time to end the holdup and build trust.

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