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Shawn Vestal: New police ombudsman commission gets to work

Shawn Vestal
Shawn Vestal

Spokane’s new citizens commission charged with overseeing police complaints opened its first meeting with many of the dreadfully dull but important questions that government work is made of: scheduling meetings, deciding leadership duties, learning the ropes of Robert’s Rules of Order and the state public meetings law.

But before the night was over, the Office of the Police Ombudsman Commission was already engaging serious issues, formally asking the Spokane Police Department to more thoroughly investigate two complaints, including one that has been the most significant point of disagreement between the ombudsman, Tim Burns, and police Chief Frank Straub.

The commission also agreed to ask for an audit of the police department’s policies and practices regarding bartering of city property, in the wake of an internal affairs investigation that found an SPD officer traded ammunition to cover some damage done to a vehicle at a fundraising event.

Now we’ll begin to see how this all works, and, chiefly, how the police department and Straub respond. The commission’s authority is limited – as a first step, it can primarily urge the police department to open or reopen internal affairs investigations, with the option of seeking a third-party investigation if it is rebuffed.

But Monday night’s first meeting illustrated at least one of the more general strengths of the city’s new system: bringing the discussion of potential problems further outside the department’s control and into the public square.

The OPO Commission grows from Proposition 1, the local initiative calling for independent investigations of police complaints that 70 percent of Spokane voters supported in February 2013. The road from there to here has been long and bumpy, involving a drawn-out wrestle between the administration, the department and police unions that resulted in a system that critics argue falls short of the mandates of Prop 1 because it failed to grant full independence to the ombudsman.

Others praised the system for creating the commission and establishing levels of oversight that are rare in any community. In the end, both of those arguments had a portion of truth – the system falls short of the strictest reading of Prop 1 and feels like another forced capitulation to the police union, and yet it establishes a mechanism for oversight that is promising in many ways.

The five commissioners are Pastor Debra Conklin, Rachel Dolezal, Adrian Dominguez, Scott Richter and Kevin Berkompas. Among the issues the commission took up Monday:

• Will Tim Burns continue as the city’s ombudsman? Two commissioners – Berkompas and Richter – said they were ready to extend Burns’ contract right away, but in the end the panel decided to put the decision on the agenda for its Nov. 4 meeting to gather more public input.

The elephant in the room involved whether Burns might be ready to leave soon for another opportunity – everyone on the panel discussed the need to move quickly or lose Burns as a candidate. Burns would not discuss it other than to say, “The clock is ticking and time is precious.”

• The commission authorized Burns to recommend that the city hire an auditor to review the use of bartering at the city’s firing range. This arises from a case in which an SPD officer bartered ammunition in exchange for having damaged a private vehicle at a fundraising event; the damage was done when an officer’s personal sunshade canopy was blown by a wind gust into a personal vehicle belonging to someone else at the event, Burns said. The officer traded ammunition, worth $450 to $500, to settle the damage, estimated at $500 to $750, Burns said. The final IA report, including the officer’s name and the discipline that was meted out, has not been posted at the SPD’s website.

“While this may be an isolated incident, in fact it might not be,” Burns said. “We have a duty to look in greater depth at it.”

• The commission also authorized Burns to ask Straub to reconsider the department’s handling of a use-of-force complaint – a case that could be the first test of how the system works when the department resists the ombudsman’s wishes.

A complaint was filed over a May traffic stop in which an officer pulled a driver from a car and “took him to the ground,” in Burns’ words, leaving a small cut on his forehead. Burns received a complaint about the incident and forwarded it to the SPD’s internal affairs unit, which declined to investigate or to classify the incident as a “use of force.”

Burns disagreed and would not certify that decision. He sent Straub a letter asking him to reconsider an investigation and to change the policy regarding when use-of-force incidents must be reported; Straub responded by defending the decision and refusing to open an investigation or create a use-of-force report. He also chided Burns for expressing his opinion that the department was being a little loose in its definitions of use of force.

So, instead of having the authority to investigate this himself, Burns and the commission are left to ask, again, for the chief to do so.

If the answer remains no, the new commission will have the chance to test the limits of its authority. And citizens will get an early measurement of the size of the gap between Prop 1 and the new system.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@spokesman.com.

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