A disagreement between the interim Spokane police chief and the police ombudsman about the handling of a recent complaint is getting the mayor’s attention.
Ombudsman Tim Burns is asking Mayor David Condon to force the Spokane Police Department to investigate a complaint that arose when officers responded to a report of possible domestic violence at a home in the city.
The April 2 complaint alleged a woman sustained bruising to her arms when officers handcuffed her. But the incident was never investigated, Burns said, because interim police Chief Scott Stephens took the rare step of questioning the complainant’s credibility. Burns said Stephens did so because it was the woman’s husband who complained about the bruising, not her. Burns said police officials say if the complaint “had merit, then that person should have contacted the department” herself, not her husband.
“The chief and I are just in serious disagreement on this case in this point and time,” Burns said.
He said the complaint also alleges officers “became physical” with one of the complainant’s stepchildren.
Burns and Stephens will meet with Condon on Friday, said Marlene Feist, spokeswoman for the city of Spokane. Condon’s decision on how to handle the dispute will be final, Feist said.
Stephens declined to discuss the details of his handling of the case this week, citing the upcoming meeting.
The city has refused to release a copy of the complaint, citing the ongoing investigation. It’s one of 50 complaints submitted to Burns’ office this year.
Another aspect of the complaint questions the legality of officers repositioning security cameras at the home, apparently so the residents could not track the officers’ movements there.
Burns said he and Stephens are awaiting a decision on the legality of the officers’ actions by Burns’ legal adviser, Tim Szambelan, an assistant attorney with the city of Spokane.“Chief Stephens has acknowledged that whatever the law is, they’ll comply with that,” Burns said.
That issue is not part of the dispute that will be discussed with Condon.
Details of the case first became public when Burns briefed the city’s Public Safety Committee at a recent meeting. Stephens, however, said the committee from now on will be briefed only after a disagreement has been settled.
He emphasized that city ordinance outlines the process for handling disagreements between him and Burns. He said they typically are able to work out an agreement and could think of only one other occasion when they couldn’t agree and needed the mayor to intervene. He said he did not remember the details.
“I think it’s a healthy process. It’s adversarial, but it’s professional,” Stephens said. “I think disagreements are healthy.”
Burns agreed that rarely do he and Stephens fail to reach an agreement or at least a compromise.
“Usually these things get resolved internally before they’ve become an issue where the chief and I simply have to agree to disagree,” he said.
Stephens declined to comment on why he chose to classify the complaint as an “inquiry,” or a complaint warranting a review of policy or procedure but not an investigation. He said Burns’ views on why he did so are Burns’ own.
“I’m not going to provide details at this point because it’s an open complaint,” Stephens said. “Tim’s opinions are based on how he believes this should be managed. My opinion is based on how I think it should be managed.
“I think it’s better we give the mayor an opportunity to see it in an unbiased venue,” he said.
As chief, Stephens is tasked with deciding how complaints are handled by classifying them as inquiries; complaints that warrant investigation; incomplete complaints that don’t warrant follow-up because the complainants are not cooperating; or complaints that can be discussed in voluntary mediation sessions.
Burns reviews the handling of the complaints to determine if they were dealt with thoroughly, objectively and in a timely fashion. He won’t do that in this case “because they haven’t done so,” he said.
“In this case there’s an allegation that there’s more bruising than would be consistent with a typical handcuffing,” Burns said. “I don’t know whether it’s true or false, but I think we need to at least look at it to determine whether it’s true or false.”