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Editorial: Mayor Condon has uphill battle with revised ombudsman plan

Mayor David Condon has a tough sales job ahead this holiday season: convincing Spokane residents and a City Council majority that a revised city ordinance expanding the powers of the Office of Police Ombudsman is the best possible arrangement within the constraints of state law and a pending contract with the Police Guild.

In effect, he will be delivering a 32-inch television screen to voters who thought they bought a 60-inch in February, when they amended the city charter to give more independence to the ombudsman charged with investigating citizen complaints against police officers.

Three weeks ago, the City Council unanimously rejected the first version of the ordinance because the ombudsman and police internal affairs review would be intertwined. Even if the ombudsman or new Police Ombudsman Commission concluded that an investigation was not adequate, the most they could do was ask for a second look. Or a third look. And so on.

There was no certainty that an investigation would ever be conclusive as long as the ombudsman or commission members felt there were loose ends. However, the ombudsman could write a “closing report” that might weigh into subsequent disciplinary proceedings.

The updated proposal largely follows the original, except for a new provision that would authorize the commission to undertake its own investigation, or to hire an outside agency to carry on. This “relief valve” would avoid repeated requests for further probing that never satisfies the ombudsman or commission members that all that can be found out has indeed been discovered.

However, whatever the commission or its agent might find, the conclusions could not be used in any disciplinary action against an officer, although a skeptical public would at least have the satisfaction of knowing everything had been done to get at the whole truth.

Even a buy-in by the council and public may not be the last word.

The guild would likely find a sympathetic ear at the Public Employee Relations Committee should officers decide to characterize the empowered ombudsman and commission as infringements on their collective bargaining agreement. An October opinion from a Seattle attorney concluded the union would likely challenge the ordinance, and likely succeed if investigation findings figure in any disciplinary action.

Although the new version explicitly says the commission’s report will have nothing to do with discipline, PERC might rule differently. The report could also be the foundation for a civil or criminal complaint against the department or officers.

Measured against the vision of an ombudsman empowered to conduct completely independent investigations, the mayor’s new proposal falls short. He must convince citizens and council that the plan is at least a step forward and best reconciles that goal and the realities of superseding state labor laws.

And if council members have a better plan, it’s time they shared it.

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