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Wed., Jan. 30, 2013

Editorial: Prop. 1 offers chance to rebuild trust in police

A yes vote on Proposition 1 would allow Spokane to complete an important transformation on police oversight.

Currently, municipal voters are weighing whether citizens should have an increased role in judging the actions of those hired to protect and serve. Voters have until Feb. 12 to cast a ballot.

We arm the police and grant them the power to detain us, but we do not have the ability to independently assess whether they’re faithfully carrying out these special responsibilities. That must change.

The city has a police ombudsman, but he isn’t allowed to conduct independent investigations on our behalf. The office was created in 2008, and Tim Burns was hired. Two years later, the City Council expanded his role to allow him to conduct his own investigations into police misconduct. But the Spokane Police Guild objected, saying this change should be bargained within labor contracts. An arbitrator agreed, and the expanded powers were repealed.

So Burns is limited to reviewing police investigations, and the public is left wondering why officers don’t trust civilian oversight.

The Otto Zehm tragedy was an obvious reason why this erosion of trust had to stop, so last fall the City Council passed a change to the charter that calls for independent civilian oversight of the police. Voters must approve charter changes. The hope is that arbitrators will respect this value if it’s enshrined in the city’s bylaws.

Thus far, there is no organized opposition to Proposition 1, owing to the popularity of its intent. If police unions object, they’re keeping it to themselves.

Along with granting the ombudsman independent investigatory powers, Proposition 1 would establish a five-person oversight commission. Burns is excited by the prospect of having greater latitude and a board that protects the mission.

The passage of Proposition 1 would mark a dramatic turnaround from March 2006, when Zehm, a mentally disabled janitor, tried to purchase a soda and a Snickers at a convenience store and ended up dying in police custody. A Spokesman-Review investigation found that the Citizens Review Commission in place at the time hadn’t reviewed a case in a decade. Later that year, the panel finally did listen to a complaint but ended up dismissing it. Afterward, a commissioner called the complainant “an ass.”

Contempt for the public was rife at the Police Department and the city attorney’s office, but a significant shift in attitude has occurred at City Hall in recent years, and it can be punctuated with a yes vote on Proposition 1.

If this measure passes, there’s still concern that state labor law may block it. Police officers ought to look at this as an opportunity to rebuild public trust, but if they fight back and win via arbitration, a yes vote would still send a clear signal to state legislators about what citizens expect: a statutory fix that allows for the independent oversight of police officers without giving them something in exchange.

The bump in public trust should be reward enough.

The Spokesman-Review Editorial Board

Members of The Spokesman-Review editorial board help to determine The Spokesman-Review's position on issues of interest to the Inland Northwest. Board members are:

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