Spokane needs police ombudsman
When we were elected to the Spokane City Council 14 months ago, it was with a clear mandate that steps needed to be taken to help restore public trust in the Spokane Police Department. The federal investigation into the tragic death of Otto Zehm in early 2006 exposed not just the mistakes that killed an innocent man, but broader, systemic problems in the culture, training and practices of our police force.
The picture that emerged corroborated many earlier criticisms not just of the SPD but of a city government that responded too often with indifference and even hostility toward those who complained about their treatment, and the treatment of others, at the hands of police.
As the Mayor’s Use of Force Commission recently concluded after months of study, there’s no single fix. Certainly one positive step has been the hiring of a new police chief, Frank Straub, who is well qualified and committed to the highest standards of professionalism and accountability.
Other key steps include additional crisis intervention training, a pilot project with body cameras, and improved communication and outreach between our police force and the community.
Our police department has given our city many things to be proud of, and is a highly trained, highly motivated and highly proficient department. However, there have been rare instances in the thousands of interactions that take place every year, that have eroded the trust between our citizens and our police department.
Trust between police and community is a vital component in any functional city. Higher levels of trust lead to increased safety for citizens and police officers alike, and also improve crime-solving and crime-prevention efforts.
One key method of building trust between a community and their police is to put in place a system of civilian oversight, to ensure that citizens have an independent, objective and professional representative to investigate citizen complaints. Over 120 cities across the nation have done this, and while there are many potential models, one of the most popular, effective and practical is an independent police ombudsman.
That’s why we recently put forward — and the council unanimously approved — an ordinance that will bring Proposition 1, a city charter amendment, before city voters on Feb. 12. The case for an independent police ombudsman was first laid out in a report titled “Recommendations for Police Oversight, A New and Balanced Approach” by nationally known consultant Sam Pailca, and was endorsed by the mayor, council and police chief in April 2007. Its central recommendations were to create an independent ombudsman and supplement the office with a board of citizen advisers.
There have been many ups and downs and twists and turns in the six years since. It is clear that under state and federal law, citizens have the power to create civilian oversight for a police force. What is not as clear is how exactly that should be accomplished, in an ever-changing minefield of federal and state law, Public Employee Relations Council rulings, case law, and collective bargaining agreements.
Proposition 1 does not dictate a legal strategy. Amendments to our city charter are rare and long-lasting. They must clearly state overarching principles supported by the majority of our citizens. They must not contradict federal or state law. But they do provide a broad blueprint for translating the commands of our citizens into action steps for our mayor and City Council, through subsequent ordinances and policy decisions.
As the Mayor’s Use of Force Commission put it in their report last month: “Investing the Office of Police Ombudsman with the authority and discretion to conduct independent investigations is essential to both establishing objective oversight and building public trust.”
The city has a clear opportunity now, as it negotiates a new contract with the Police Guild, to make the needed changes. It’s time to get this done. Prop 1 gives our citizens their first chance to go on record, officially, institutionalizing the Office of Police Ombudsman and the Police Ombudsman Commission into the city charter, preventing any miscommunication or misunderstanding for our current and all future mayors and city councils.
In simplest terms, it’s time for the citizens of Spokane to have the independent police oversight they’ve long sought.
For all the above reasons, we encourage you to mark Feb. 12 on your calendars and ask that you cast your vote in favor of Proposition 1, the charter amendment that will help secure this long overdue reform.
Editor’s note: The Spokesman-Review will accept opinions opposing Proposition 1 for possible publication Feb. 9-10. Mona Charen will return next week.