November 5, 2013 in Opinion

Editorial: Ombudsman issue alone should spike police pact

 

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:

The Spokane City Council should reject the tentative agreement with the Police Guild.

Terms clearly fall short of complying with a city charter amendment empowering the Office of Police Ombudsman to conduct independent investigations of alleged police misconduct. City voters in February overwhelmingly approved the amendment.

Although the council has announced plans for three public hearings on the pact approved by the Guild last week, how public testimony can restore what Mayor David Condon and his team seem to have bargained away is unclear.

In announcing the agreement, Condon said he’d hoped the ombudsman language would be stronger, and he pledged “to work toward a draft that is consistent with Proposition 1 and state law.”

But Guild attorney Hillary McClure is smothering speculation ongoing talks will yield more progress. The city has been negotiating with the union for two years. This is the deal.

Like it or not, she’s right. The agreement specifically says that any Guild or city proposal not in the agreement are withdrawn.

The charter amendment says “… the OPO shall independently investigate any matter necessary to fulfill its duties within the limits of … any collective bargaining agreements in existence at the time this amendment takes effect, but only until such agreement is replaced by a successor agreement.”

The proposed new contract is that successor agreement. Successor, not successful.

The ombudsman’s independent investigation would amount to a ride-along with that conducted by the Police Department Internal Affairs division. He or she could ask their own questions and file their own report, but they could do nothing outside the scope of the IA probe, although they could request an expanded investigation be conducted.

If that request, or one that an investigation be opened, is denied, a Police Ombudsman Commission will make the call. And the Guild apparently has questions about just how much power the commission will have, and concerns that the ombudsman’s authority will have a disciplinary function. The latter is a red herring.

Perhaps the council hearings will clarify some of these issues. Perhaps the public, having heard these explanations, will conclude ombudsmen can indeed do their own fact-finding, and reach their own conclusions.

Not likely. The Otto Zehm case casts a long shadow.

The ombudsman issue aside, the agreement will perpetuate the steady march of public safety worker compensation to levels beyond those of the average Spokane employees paying them. At 2 percent per year over four years, the raise compounds to closer to 10 percent. That’s generous, given the city’s agreeing to pay officer tuition for additional education, which is a good thing.

The city needs additional police protection. Chief Frank Straub’s plan for restructuring the department around precincts is a good one. And no matter the fate of this contract, the selection and training of new officers should go forward.

But getting the ombudsman issue right, right now, is important. The mayor says his patience is wearing thin.

So is the community’s.


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