The announcement that the contract for Spokane’s police ombudsman won’t be renewed is sure to raise anxiety in a community that waged a lengthy battle over establishing that position in the first place. With his three-year contract set to expire on Aug. 24, Tim Burns sought assurances that he would be retained. However, with the position in a state of flux, the Condon administration didn’t feel comfortable doing that. Burns’ last day will be Oct. 31.
Next month, the Use of Force Commission will release its recommendations for reforming police oversight. Later this month, the mayor says he will name the next police chief. The mayor and the City Council support increased power for the position, most notably the ability to conduct independent investigations in use-of-force cases. Currently, the ombudsman is restricted to reviewing internal police probes and being present during witness interviews. What’s more, the city will have to bargain with the police guild before changing the oversight model.
In short, there are a lot of balls in the air, so giving Burns the assurance he wanted was problematic. But his replacement will not be as knowledgeable about the inner workings of the Spokane Police Department. So anxiety about backsliding on the commitment is warranted.
Police oversight has been a long slog. Adopting the current model required compromise that weakened the final product. The position isn’t cheap, costing the city about $200,000 a year at a time it’s looking to trim costs. It could be tempting to mothball the position and declare that some lighter version of oversight is warranted with a new chief in town.
For those thinking along these lines, a brief history lesson is in order.
Before the in-custody death of Otto Zehm, Spokane had police oversight in name only. The Citizens Review Commission hadn’t reviewed a case in 10 years. This civilian panel had no budget and met on an irregular schedule, when it met at all. The police chief decided which cases would be forwarded for review. Citizens who felt they had a complaint against the Police Department had little recourse. On top of all that, the city attorney’s office took an aggressive posture against those who dared to complain.
It has taken six years to get this far; the city cannot backtrack. Would Burns have been the right fit once the job was reformed? That was Mayor David Condon’s call to make. But what happens next will be instructive.
City Council President Ben Stuckart is calling for a change before the new ombudsman is selected. Under the current ordinance, ombudsman candidates are winnowed by a screening panel that includes members of the police force. The mayor must pick from those candidates. This gives the agency being reviewed too much influence.
The council should quickly adopt a conflict-free selection process to demonstrate that the departure of Burns does not signal a retreat on police oversight.