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Outgoing police ombudsman Tim Burns wants Spokane to focus on the progress

Spokane police ombudsman Tim Burns, standing in front of Spokane City Hall on Wednesday, has held the position since 2009. (Jesse Tinsley)
Spokane police ombudsman Tim Burns, standing in front of Spokane City Hall on Wednesday, has held the position since 2009. (Jesse Tinsley)

In his last days in office, outgoing police ombudsman Tim Burns said ongoing mistrust of Spokane police is rooted in past events, and that it’s time for the community to acknowledge the large strides that have been made in police reform.

“Oversight will always be on the agenda, from Otto Zehm’s day forward,” he said.

But while it’s important to never forget Zehm’s death at the hands of former Spokane police Officer Karl Thompson, Burns believes the community should “move beyond” it and focus on ongoing efforts to implement changes suggested by the Use of Force Commission and the U.S. Department of Justice.

“Otherwise, they’ll never have the level of trust that they would benefit from having in our law enforcement officers,” he said, adding, “If you look at the transparency of this police department now versus in 2006, it’s light-years apart.”

Burns took a soft-spoken approach to reform during his five-and-a-half-year tenure as the city’s first ombudsman, sometimes drawing criticism for not advocating more aggressively. Some supporters of Proposition 1, the 2013 ballot measure giving the ombudsman’s office independent investigative authority, wanted Burns to be able to begin investigations into complaints against the police department without having to wait for Internal Affairs.

Center for Justice Executive Director Rick Eichstaedt said stronger investigative powers would ensure people who don’t feel comfortable with the police investigative process still get a fair hearing.

“We get folks who just don’t trust that process, the Internal Affairs process, and they would feel much more comfortable and like they got a fairer review if it went to the ombudsman,” Eichstaedt said.

“There were definitely times when he could have been stronger on that point,” said Liz Moore, executive director of the Peace and Justice Action League of Spokane. The Police Guild contract approved by the City Council eventually allowed the ombudsman to investigate complaints the Police Department declines to look into.

And while progress has been made in police reform, Moore cautioned that much more remains to be done.

“Culture takes much longer to change than policies do,” she said. The Use of Force Commission’s 2013 recommendation for a departmental culture audit, she said, “speaks to the need to move forward together and expect that the Police Department would take a full, very robust approach to incorporating the changes that go beyond just policy.”

Burns drew praise for his community outreach efforts, which included regular office hours and attendance at a variety of cultural and civic events around the city. His office produced detailed reports on their activities, which were presented at public meetings and posted online, but Burns rarely campaigned to rally public support behind the many recommendations his office made.

In his office’s annual report for 2013, he recommended creating a medical examiner inquest process, believing it would help provide clarity in cases of officer-involved deaths, a recommendation Spokane County has opposed.

“My hope continues to remain at some point there would be a broader, larger community conversation about the value or the lack of value to it. It hasn’t gained that momentum to this point,” Burns said.

He said he has no regrets from his time in office but was frustrated by how long it took to create the police ombudsman commission after Spokane voters approved Proposition 1 in February 2013. The proposition enshrined a five-member civilian commission in the city charter and gave Burns’ office independent investigative authority to look into complaints the Police Department declined to investigate. When six months had passed without much visible movement toward a commission, Burns took a job in another city that fall.

“To create a commission to me didn’t seem as difficult as it apparently was, and it’s probably my ignorance about the legal challenges to doing that,” he said.

The same day he accepted the new job offer Burns got an email from then-Councilman Steve Salvatori, who said the city was planning to move forward with creating a commission regardless of the pushback they might receive. So Burns decided to stay and see the process out.

“Unfortunately, to my credit and my fault, I am loyal, and the timing wasn’t right,” he said.

He still believes the commission could have been created without including it in the city’s contract negotiations with the Police Guild, which were pending at the time.

Councilman Jon Snyder, the chair of the city’s Public Safety Committee, said that may be the case, but he believes the city avoided potentially time-consuming litigation and achieved greater buy-in from police by including the guild from the beginning.

“The vast majority of the rank-and-file police all voted for it. If we’d had to go through litigation and the extra time that might have taken … at the end we may have won, but we wouldn’t have had anything that the union agreed to.”

Burns’ California roots eventually drew him away from Spokane. While in office, he split his time between his home in the San Francisco Bay Area, where his family remained, and his work. With a contract due to expire in August 2014, he began applying for jobs closer to home last summer and received an offer last month, just weeks after the newly seated ombudsman commission voted to extend his contract another three years.

“Had I known in advance I would have never chosen to put the commission through having to choose a new ombudsman,” he said.

Snyder said Burns did an “admirable job” of splitting his time between California and Spokane, but he believes the next ombudsman should be someone who plans to relocate permanently.

“I don’t think it’s good to have every other week or one week a month where the ombudsman isn’t available in person to folks that come in to city hall. I just think being here all the time, you get to know the lay of the land,” he said.

With Burns departing, much of the heavy lifting to implement U.S. Department of Justice recommendations released in December will fall to the ombudsman commission, which also is tasked with making the final selection for a new ombudsman.

Commission Chair Rachel Dolezal said an early task will be community outreach to clarify the commission’s role to the public.

“Some people kind of see us as part of the police department, which is inaccurate, and some people kind of see us as having veto or executive authority over the police department, which is also inaccurate,” she said.

Dolezal said commissioners have a short list in mind for the fifth seat on the search committee for a new ombudsman. Ombudsman Commissioner Adrian Dominguez and City Attorney Nancy Isserlis have been appointed, with two remaining seats to be filled by the Spokane Police Guild and the Lieutenants and Captains Association. The fifth member will be selected by the other four.

The search committee will recommend three candidates to the ombudsman commission, which has the final say on a new hire.

Eichstaedt hopes the new ombudsman will be aggressive in pursuing reform.

“Whoever takes that position needs to exercise the maximum authority they have,” he said. Even without an ombudsman in office, Dolezal said, the commission is committed to using their full authority to advocate for ongoing reform.

“Our goal, I think, really is to maximize that impact, and what that would look like is hopefully coming as close to Proposition 1’s objectives as possible,” she said. “All commissioners are going to really be committed to that work.”


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