August 15, 2012

Burns out as Spokane’s police ombudsman

By The Spokesman-Review
 
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Background and the latest updates

Spokane’s first police ombudsman will soon be out of a job, and the city may be without a permanent ombudsman for several months.

Spokane Mayor David Condon has decided not to renew Police Ombudsman Tim Burns’ three-year contract that expires Aug. 24, said City Administrator Theresa Sanders. He will keep his job, however, until Oct. 31.

Sanders said that Condon was uncomfortable extending Burns’ stay for the long term because the position is likely to change. The city’s Use of Force Commission is due to release its final recommendations for a police oversight model next month. Condon also has said he will select a new police chief by the end of this month.

“We’re in the process of re-engineering that position,” Sanders said.

Burns, 58, was the neighborhood preservation manager in Visalia, Calif. when he was picked for the ombudsman job by then-Mayor Mary Verner in June 2009. Previous to his work in neighborhood services and code enforcement, Burns served as a police officer for 22 years in Los Gatos, Calif.

Sanders said Burns offered to stay through the end of the year, but that the administration decided to end his employment Oct. 31. She said that since the city was certain to have a transition, Condon decided the transition should start earlier.

“When Tim and I spoke, he was looking for some certainty for the future and I was unable to provide that to him,” Sanders said.

Rick Eichstaedt, director of the Spokane’s Center for Justice, said he’s concerned that that the city will be without an ombudsman.

“We have an existing ombudsman ordinance in place. We need to have an ombudsman,” Eichstaedt said. “There was considerable public outcry to get an ombudsman in place. This needs to be vetted with the community.”

Burns said today that he has discussed his future at the city with Condon and Sanders since January. He declined to talk about the details of the discussions.

“I think the mayor and I will come to a mutual agreement at some point in the near future,” Burns said. “I’d rather have this conversation after I have it with the mayor first. There’s not a whole lot to know at this time, quite honestly.”

Asked if he was hoping to stay in Spokane, Burns said, “Well, you know, I have my reservations.”

“I’m not really prepared to discuss this with you guys at this point,” Burns said. “I need to think more about it myself.”

Sanders said Condon is committed to maintaining an ombudsman position and that any of the options for police oversight under consideration by the Use of Force Commission includes an ombudsman. She also said that the city will work with Burns to determine how the city should handle ombudsman duties until the new system is in place. That might include appointing an acting ombudsman.

The Center for Justice and other groups have criticized the city for not creating an ombudsman job that allows the ombudsman to investigate allegations of police misconduct separately from the police department’s own investigations. When he took the job, Burns said he was fine with the limitation, but he later endorsed a City Council proposal to expand his powers.

“He has done an admirable job, given the limitations he has,” Eichstaedt said.

In order for the city to expand Burns’ powers, city officials must win agreement from the Spokane Police Guild.

“We are absolutely committed to having an ombudsman and we are committed to having some kind of citizens’ oversight,” Sanders said. “I know that the guild is going to be willing to discuss it with us. I just don’t know what the outcome is going to be.”

City Council President Ben Stuckart said he supports the decision not to offer Burns a long-term contract at least until the city determines its new model for police oversight. But he said he’s concerned about having a long period without a permanent ombudsman on duty.

“We need an ombudsman. Even if the ombudsman is not as strong as I or the citizens want.”

Reporter Meghann Cuniff contributed to this report.


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