The Spokane City Council has tried several times over the past two decades to craft a police oversight system with teeth.
Now it’s the citizens’ turn.
Voters this week will receive ballots for the Feb. 12 special election. Proposition 1 in the city of Spokane would establish the Office of Police Ombudsman along with a five-person oversight commission within the city charter. The rules are aimed at giving the ombudsman the power to investigate alleged police misconduct independently of the police department.
Supporters say the proposition finally gives the public a chance to weigh in on the issue of police oversight, which has raged within city government for years, especially since 2006 with high-profile cases involving the death of Otto Zehm while in police custody and the botched police investigation of an allegation of rape in a city fire station.
Opponents say – well, they’re not saying much of anything. No group came forward to present an opposing argument for the city’s voters’ guide. The Spokane City Council and Mayor David Condon are unanimous in their support. The city’s police unions apparently haven’t taken positions, nor has the Spokane Regional Labor Council.
The City Council created the ombudsman position after winning approval from the Spokane Police Guild to move forward with the program in 2008. They amended the law in 2010 to give the ombudsman the power to independently investigate police misconduct.
But the Spokane Police Guild argued that the strengthened ombudsman rules violated its labor contract, and an arbitrator agreed with the guild in 2011. The City Council repealed independent investigative power later that year as a result.
Now the question is whether enshrining the power within the city charter will make a difference, especially since the proposal explicitly says that the ombudsman will have independent authority only “within the limits” of state labor law.
Rick Eichstaedt, executive director of Spokane’s Center for Justice, said because the ombudsman doesn’t have the power to punish officers, state labor law doesn’t conflict with giving the ombudsman independent authority. He says if voters place an ombudsman in the city charter, city officials could not present a police contract to City Council that contradicts the city charter. If city administrators can’t reach a deal with the union and an arbitrator is called in to make the final call, Eichstaedt said an arbitrator also couldn’t ignore the charter.
“It will really hard-wire independent oversight into our system of government,” Eichstaedt said.
But not everyone says that approving Proposition 1 would be the final step needed to create independent oversight.
Lt. Dan Torok, vice president of the Lieutenants and Captains Association, which represents about 15 higher ranking police officers in the force, said the union has not taken a position on the proposition. He said adding the requirement in the city charter doesn’t automatically mean the ombudsman will have investigatory authority.
“It doesn’t negate the fact that it needs to be negotiated regardless of what the charter says,” Torok said.
Torok said “there is no great aversion whatsoever” within the association to giving the ombudsman independent oversight. But he added that allegations of misconduct considered by the ombudsman are more likely to involve frontline officers who are represented by the Spokane Police Guild.
Guild President Ernie Wuthrich did not return a call seeking comment.
Councilman Jon Snyder is pessimistic that the proposition is a clear path to giving the ombudsman independent investigative power. He believes a change in state law may be needed to achieve it. But he said the proposition is important so the public’s position becomes absolutely clear.
Supporters say there are other important reasons besides independent oversight to approve Proposition 1.
Spokane Police Ombudsman Tim Burns, another supporter, said he’s excited about working for a citizens’ commission.
“It will help us maintain focus on our mission and the service that we strive to provide to the community,” Burns said.
Councilman Mike Allen, who worked with Councilman Steve Salvatori to put the proposition on the ballot, said placing the ombudsman’s office within the city charter depoliticizes police oversight. With frequent changes in city leadership, the police ombudsman needs stability and steady, strong rules, he said.
“Ultimately, this is the citizens’ opportunity to weigh in on how they want their police oversight delivered.”