Spokane City Council members Mike Allen and Steve Salvatori want to fix the job of police ombudsman. Fix, as in granting the office independent investigative powers. And fixed, as in making the office a fixture within the government of the city of Spokane.
They, as well as other council members, city officials and constituencies, think the public is ready. So do we.
The two have submitted a proposed amendment to the Spokane City Charter for council adoption by Dec. 31. If passed, voters would vote on the amendment Feb. 12.
Although a stand-alone election may cost $200,000, they consider it a wise expenditure of scant city resources. So do we.
The vote could be postponed until the August election, but that would potentially bring politics into an issue preferably resolved on its own merits. And they are anxious for a resolution after several years of paralysis caused by negotiations with the Police Guild, a delayed report from the city’s Use of Force Commission, and the off-again, on-again contract with Tim Burns, the ombudsman since 2009.
With the city nearing agreement on a new contract with the guild, they are determined that the importance the council attaches to an empowered ombudsman be explicit. Both say they – and a likely majority of council members – will not approve a contract that impedes independent investigations.
They emphasized that the timing of the proposal is unrelated to the sentencing Thursday of Karl Thompson Jr., the former Spokane police officer convicted of using excessive force, and lying in the investigation of Otto Zehm’s death. The Zehm case, however, has focused the public’s attention like never before on the need for third-party reviews of police conduct that do not require intervention by the U.S. Department of Justice.
Specifically, the proposed amendment calls for creation of an Office of Police Ombudsman and Police Ombudsman Commission.
Besides conducting his or her own investigations, the ombudsman would monitor other police and administrative reviews, and recommend improvements in policy, training and equipment. Most importantly, they would assure transparency and accountability to skeptical citizens who have too often seen poor conduct by law enforcement officers go unpunished.
The commission, with two members nominated by the mayor and one from each council district, would evaluate that ombudsman’s work, assign additional tasks and assure it all complies with city and state laws and labor contracts. City ordinances would refine the responsibilities.
Allen says the council was told in 2008 that a new guild contract would provide for independent investigations. It did not, and the union has since said that such a provision is not a city prerogative, but must be negotiated.
Contract talks are reportedly near conclusion. The council’s desire for an autonomous ombudsman, and the limited financial resources the city has to offer, have surely made for some strained conversations.
No matter the outcome, it’s time for the citizens to speak. Feb. 12 cannot come soon enough.