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Shawn Vestal: The police oversight we want, or just what we can get?

Fri., Dec. 6, 2013

Is it time for the good to defeat the perfect, when it comes to police oversight in Spokane?

Perhaps. There is a case to be made that the package of police oversight measures proposed by the mayor and police chief is the best we can do – while not, in my view, reaching the standards expressed by the mayor’s Use of Force Commission or by voters. There is a case that purists like me, or the mayor’s Use of Force Commission, or the voters, are being either unrealistic or unreasonable in continuing to seek full, unqualified investigative independence for the ombudsman. There is a case to be made that the city can either adopt this plan, which is very good in many ways, or find itself stuck in a losing battle against the more determined enemy of the good on this issue: the Spokane Police Guild.

First, let’s peruse the good. Mayor David Condon, police Chief Frank Straub and other city officials are making the case that this ordinance will make Spokane a leader in police oversight. There is a definite sense that members of the City Council – which just rejected a very, very similar plan – are getting on board. Here is a very summarized version of their case:

In February, voters approved Proposition 1, which sought independent investigative authority for the office of the ombudsman. That authority is subject to the laws of the state, past labor relations agreements, city law and other restrictions.

Given those limitations or perceived limitations, the new ordinance, in conjunction with a new guild contract, would expand the independence and citizen oversight of police complaints in drastic and innovative ways. Significantly, it would create the citizens commission voters asked for with authority to oversee investigations and order follow-ups. It would propose – key word, that – a “safety valve” in which the commission could order a third-party investigation if it concluded that the internal affairs investigators and ombudsman were insufficient.

Pierce Murphy, who directs the office of professional accountability for the city of Seattle and is a national expert on civilian oversight, was enlisted to make a statement of support for the plan, which was distributed by the city at a news conference Wednesday.

“I see a lot to be positive about with this ordinance,” Murphy’s statement said.

It’s not exactly a rave, but Murphy is a significant voice, and even his qualified support is noteworthy.

The mayor argues that the ordinance, along with the tentative contract with the guild, will establish Spokane as a leader in a very difficult and evolving realm of police accountability. He also argues that “independence” has a variable range of meanings, and that this proposal meets his and fulfills Proposition 1.

Under the proposal, the ombudsman would have full access to internal affairs investigations, sit in on interviews, be able to ask questions and request further investigation. He or she would produce a report at the end of the process. The citizens commission could order more investigation at several steps in the process and could contract for a third-party investigation at the end of the process if it was unsatisfied. The ombudsman would not conduct this safety-valve investigation because, having been in the sidecar of the IA investigation all along, the ombudsman would not be considered independent.

OK. That’s their case, as good as I can make it. It’s a good plan. It is a dramatic improvement on what we now have. Is it good enough? It does not accomplish the simplest, clearest interpretation of Proposition 1, in my opinion – the establishment of “independent investigative authority.” Is that a pipe dream? Is the very notion of someone other than the cops investigating the cops simply impossible?

I asked Murphy. “No, it’s not impossible at all,” he said. “The Boise ombudsman has independent investigative authority. It’s possible. It’s rare … but it’s not unheard of.”

The question, Murphy said, is whether that is achievable with Washington’s labor laws, which are much, much different from right-to-work Idaho’s. He said there’s no ideal system and that all such oversight mechanisms are a result of the “art of the possible.” Spokane’s is no exception.

“It’s not perfect,” he said. “There are not true independent investigations by the ombudsman. Would that be better? Yeah, it probably would be. … But is it pretty strong? If you look around the country, yes, it’s relatively strong.”

So let’s say, for the sake of argument, this is the best possible plan for Spokane. Is the guild, whose rights so clearly transcend those of mere voters, on board? The mayor and chief argue that it is. The mayor said that if the guild objected he was ready to “vigorously defend” the ordinance.

Guild President John Gately attended the press conference Wednesday and stood with the mayor and chief. Every time he opened his mouth, he undercut the notion that he was cooperating. He offered no assurances – none, not even the vaguest, most general kinds of press conference puffery – that the guild would accept the terms of the ordinance. He sounded similarly evasive about the guild’s position on the body cameras the city already purchased.

Everyone else keeps insisting the guild is on board. But Gately left an impression that is hard to forget, given that his organization has been a constant obstacle to progress on this question.

This plan is good, but is it good enough? Citizens should take the chance now to let the mayor and City Council know. And Gately’s hedging provides reason for everyone to wish that he would make it clearer that, this time, the guild is not the enemy of the good.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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