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Sun., Feb. 9, 2014

Editorial: Let Spokane police ombudsman have time to play out

It looks like the wayward journey to independence for the Office of Police Ombudsman has been steered back on course, with the city reaching a new labor agreement with Spokane Police Guild leaders that better nails down just what “independence” and “oversight” will mean.

Since voters passed Proposition 1, which established the Office of Police Ombudsman Commission and called for “total independence,” the city has tried to find a way to implement it in such a way that it doesn’t run afoul of state labor laws.

The process was complicated by the ongoing contract negotiations with the guild when Prop 1 passed last February. As that process dragged on, City Councilman Steve Salvatori moved forward with an ordinance to incorporate the expanded ombudsman role. His frustration was understandable because a labor contract was already one year overdue. But police Chief Frank Straub urged him to hold off, fearing it might blow up a pending agreement with the guild.

When the tentative agreement was announced, the public and the City Council were dismayed to discover that it failed to give the ombudsman the power to conduct independent investigations. In November, the council unanimously rejected the tentative agreement.

On Dec. 4, Mayor David Condon and Straub unveiled a proposed ordinance that would establish some investigatory power through an independent commission. However, guild leadership wouldn’t say whether it endorsed the ordinance, which raised fears among council members that an unfair-labor-practices challenge could torpedo negotiations.

That led to a Jan. 3 letter from Council President Ben Stuckart to the mayor urging him to reopen contract talks that would get the guild’s approval on the scope of independent investigations and the publishing of final reports. On Feb. 5, Condon announced the new labor agreement, and Stuckart enthusiastically supports it, saying the ombudsman portion is precisely what he wanted.

The new deal appears to have the support of a council majority. Persuading guild leadership to forgo a challenge of ombudsman powers before the Public Employment Relations Commission was crucial.

But does the agreement give the Office of the Ombudsman the prerogatives envisioned in Prop 1? The new powers are substantial, and probably take the city as close to “total independence” as is possible under current state laws.

If the OPO urges the Police Department to conduct an Internal Affairs investigation and one does not occur, the ombudsman can open an investigation. If an Internal Affairs probe isn’t deemed “timely, thorough and objective” by the ombudsman, the new commission can assign an independent investigator to the task. If the ombudsman and police chief reach an impasse, the commission will be the final arbiter.

Measured against police oversight in other cities, this offers greater independence. When measured against the original ombudsman limits, it’s significant progress.

The public should let it work, then measure it against Prop 1.

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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