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Ombudsman oversight criticized as not enough

Deb Conklin raises her hands and quotes Bob Dylan: “How many deaths will it take till he knows that too many people have died? The answer my friend is blowin’ in the wind” at the end of her testimony against the latest tentative agreement between the city of Spokane and the Spokane Police Guild, which most at the meeting Thursday agreed did not go far enough to empower civilian oversight. (Jesse Tinsley)
Deb Conklin raises her hands and quotes Bob Dylan: “How many deaths will it take till he knows that too many people have died? The answer my friend is blowin’ in the wind” at the end of her testimony against the latest tentative agreement between the city of Spokane and the Spokane Police Guild, which most at the meeting Thursday agreed did not go far enough to empower civilian oversight. (Jesse Tinsley)

At a crowded town hall meeting Thursday night, citizen after citizen took the microphone to criticize the Spokane Police Department and mayor’s proposed independent police oversight ordinance.

More than 80 people attended Thursday’s meeting at the West Central Community Center, and many raised their hands to speak.

Though some applauded the efforts of Mayor David Condon and police Chief Frank Straub to increase police department transparency, the message from each was clear: It’s not enough.

The proposed ordinance allows for the ombudsman, who participates in all police internal affairs investigations, allows for him to report findings to an unpaid citizen board appointed by the mayor and Spokane City Council. If the board finds the internal investigation was handled inappropriately, it can call for additional investigation or the introduction of a third party to conduct a separate investigation.

Straub said the ordinance would place the police department under the highest level of oversight granted by state law. He added that the death of mentally disabled man Otto Zehm after an encounter with police has become a catalyst for the community’s demand for such oversight.

“We accept ownership not just for his death, but for the fact that this department failed each of you,” Straub said. “Because we did not thoroughly and appropriately investigate what happened and report the results of that investigation to you.”

Straub also cited crisis intervention training and 220 body cameras to be placed on all uniformed officers next year as efforts the department is taking to improve.

However, those opposed to the ordinance say the ombudsman doesn’t have enough independence from the police department. Many asked why the meeting or additional debate is even necessary, when 70 percent of Spokane voters supported Proposition 1 in the Feb. 12 special election, establishing independent investigative authority for the ombudsman within the city’s charter.

“Those of you who voted for Prop. 1, would you please raise your hands?” asked Tim Connor, previously of the Spokane Center for Justice and outspoken opponent of the current ordinance. Almost everyone in the room raised their hands. Some stood up.

“We had an election,” he said. “We voted. We gave you our voice. And you chose not to follow it.”

Julie Schaffer, of the Center for Justice, said the ordinance will violate the city charter amendment voted on in February.

She added that the continued discussion and changes to the ordinance by the police department and mayor have created a “political fiasco,” leading to distrust of elected officials.

A young attendee, Justin Pimsanguan, said he was with the grass-roots movement “Don’t Shoot.” The organization seeks to reduce gun violence through mentor outreach.

Pimsanguan said while police have made strides toward independent investigations, it’s still not enough.

“I’ve been very afraid of the police department,” Pimsanguan said.

The Spokane City Council voted unanimously against the police union’s contract agreement in November because it failed to provide enough investigative authority for the ombudsman.

The council is scheduled to vote on the ordinance at Monday’s meeting, but Council President Ben Stuckart said he’ll again vote no.

“My job is to represent the citizens’ wishes,” Stuckart said. “The citizens are telling me to vote against this.”



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