Spokane’s independent police oversight panel is in turmoil.
Three of its five members, including former Spokane NAACP president Rachel Dolezal, likely will be removed by the City Council if they don’t immediately resign following an investigation that found multiple instances of misconduct including records tampering, disclosure of sensitive information, demeaning treatment of city employees and attempted overstepping of their authority.
“I think it’s a huge setback,” said City Council President Ben Stuckart on Wednesday of the prospect of the city’s first Police Ombudsman Commission being gutted to a level where it would have too few members to legally operate. “I’m very disappointed. I’ve been really sick to my stomach the past few days.”
Mayor David Condon also called it a setback and asked the City Council to begin formal procedures to remove Dolezal and fellow commissioners Adrian Dominguez and Kevin Berkompas.
“We are deeply concerned and disturbed,” Condon said.
But the three commissioners targeted in the city probe called it a sham, with one noting the investigation was conducted by lawyers from City Attorney Nancy Isserlis’ former law firm and suggesting it’s simply a ploy to deprive Spokane of the truly independent police oversight 72 percent of voters called for in 2013.
“They’re not factual,” Dominguez said of the findings, noting he was never advised of what he was being accused of and had no opportunity to respond to specific allegations or provide any explanation or defense of his actions. “I’m being called out for trying to do my job.”
Similarly, Berkompas, a retired Air Force colonel, also questioned how investigators reached their conclusions, disputed any suggestion of wrongdoing and contends the report fails to provide evidence supporting its findings.
“I don’t think that report will stand up to scrutiny,” the retired military officer said Wednesday. “You go back in my history as far as you want and you’ll see that’s not how I operate. People have gone out of their way to mischaracterize my interactions with them and denigrate my character.”
In a statement, Dolezal said she was “deeply disturbed” by the letter from Condon and Stuckart.
“I stand by my work on behalf of the citizens of Spokane to further justice and promote civilian oversight of law enforcement,” Dolezal said in the statement obtained by KHQ. “I will continue to promote greater transparency and accountability for law enforcement both locally and nationally.”
Dolezal, whose parents last week ignited an international frenzy by disclosing that despite presenting herself as a black woman for years she’s actually white, also is the subject of an ethics investigation into whether she lied on her application for appointment to the oversight board.
Although Berkompas and Dominguez dispute the investigation’s findings, they said they’re finished volunteering their time for the city of Spokane.
Dominguez, an epidemiologist who earlier this month accepted a new job in Seattle, submitted his resignation last week because he’s relocating to the Puget Sound area but had offered to stay on through the end of July to help get a new police ombudsman hired and assist with his replacement’s transition.
“I already resigned earlier,” he said when asked if he’ll abide by Condon’s and Stuckart’s resignation request. “But now I want to clear my name.”
Berkompas said the experience has left him frustrated as well.
“They’re saying I did things that I didn’t do and wouldn’t do,” he said, adding that he was never asked by investigators about any specific instances of alleged impropriety so that he could provide his recollections or versions of the encounters. “But given that the mayor and council president don’t want me to serve any more, I’ll resign.”
Because removal of the commissioners would leave just two on the panel, it wouldn’t be enough to formally forward ombudsman finalists to the City Council for consideration because it lacks a quorum.
Stuckart and Condon said they’re asking the Police Guild to approve a temporary change in the ordinance that would allow the separate ombudsman search committee to forward its list of finalists directly to the council instead. If those negotiations fail, he said, the City Council will move swiftly to fill the vacated commission seats so progress on hiring a new ombudsman can resume.
At the heart of the conflict is a disagreement over the authority of the appointed commission members to direct office staff, particularly after Ombudsman Tim Burns left in January for a new job in California. That left the office assistant without a supervisor for months as the new commission sought to get organized, develop the voter-approved position and find a replacement for Burns.
The office assistant, along with Ombudsman Commissioner Scott Richter, expressed concern that the trio of commissioners tried to overstep their authority in a variety of ways. The staff member argued she was employed by the city, not the commission, and reported to the ombudsman rather than the appointed commissioners. Richter is the community indicators project manager at Eastern Washington University and a former intern in the ombudsman’s office.
The whistleblower complaint also included allegations of manipulating meeting minutes, seeking to obscure commission vote tallies, violating open meeting requirements and workplace harassment.
But the investigation also shows concern over a perceived anti-police bias among the commission members and in Dolezal’s case an inability to separate the demands of serving as impartial chairwoman of the oversight panel from her role as a civil rights activist and president of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP.
Dominguez acknowledged Wednesday that he shared with Spokane police officers negative experiences he’d had with law enforcement while growing up in Southern California but that he’d made it clear that it was in another state and had no bearing on his feelings about the local police force.
Commissioners were named to the commission in August 2014. In addition to Dolezal, Dominguez, Berkompas and Richter, it includes Debra Conklin, 61, a pastor at Liberty Park United Methodist Church.
The commission was formed to provide independent oversight of the city’s police ombudsman, who reviews internal investigations into police misconduct. The ombudsman position was created following disclosure of the department’s sloppy and incomplete investigation into the role of its own officers in the confrontation with Otto Zehm, who who died in police custody in 2006.
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter.