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Editorial: Wait isn’t over for independent police ombudsman

If you’re befuddled by the Spokane City Council’s inaction on a proposed ordinance giving the police ombudsman’s office independent investigatory powers, you’re not alone.

It could still happen. Or not. It’s hard to know when public policy matters are tied up in contract negotiations held behind closed doors.

The public is frustrated, because it voted overwhelmingly last February to give the ombudsman the power to independently probe cases involving the use of force by police officers. And it looked like the council was going to move towards implementation Monday night.

But members came away frustrated, too. They’ve wanted to pass the enabling ordinance but have been stymied by drawn-out labor negotiations.

The mayor and the Spokane Police Guild could be frustrated, but who knows? The negotiation of a contract that expired at the end of 2011 was done out of sight, and the tentative agreement remains under wraps until the union votes on it.

Council members were poised to pass a broad ombudsman ordinance Monday night but held off when Spokane Police Chief Frank Straub urged them to not to, saying it could blow up the tentative agreement. Is that because the deal precludes ombudsman independence? That information isn’t available.

City Councilman Steve Salvatori, who pushed for Monday’s vote, says Straub was persuasive on the importance of not upsetting the union. He also said he would not vote for a labor agreement if it precludes expanded ombudsman powers. Despite Guild sensitivity cited by Straub, Salvatori’s confident the voters’ wishes will be granted, so read what you will into that.

So, what happened Monday night doesn’t move the needle very far. The council voted to form a citizen Police Ombudsman Commission that will oversee the office’s independent investigations, if they ever occur. We won’t know more about that until the Guild votes on the tentative agreement, at which point it will be made public.

If the union accepts the agreement, the council would hold a couple of public forums on how to implement expanded ombudsman authority. We’d encourage union members to be a part of that process. If those forums devolve into debates on whether to expand ombudsman powers, then resistant council members can expect an earful – and possibly shortened political careers.

The good news is that a tentative labor agreement has been finally reached. It’s long overdue. Then again, this could turn into bad news when all the blanks are filled in, particularly the space for compensation.

The only thing certain at this point is that Spokane citizens must wait, once again, for what all elected officials say they want and the union itself has never publicly denounced.

If citizens are worried or angry, we cannot blame them. Public trust on this issue died with Otto Zehm more than seven years ago, and the community still does not have the independent oversight it sorely needs and wants.


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