Spokane’s police ombudsman could be in a much stronger position to conduct independent investigations by the end of the year if City Councilman Breean Beggs has his way.
Beggs said small changes to the city ordinance laying out the ombudsman’s powers and duties could effectively cut the city’s two police unions out of having a say in the ombudsman’s role and hiring, opening the door for more robust independent investigations.
Currently, the ombudsman can sit in on the police department’s own investigations of alleged officer misconduct, ask questions and recommend that internal cases be reopened for further investigation. Though the ombudsman has no say in officer discipline directly, those powers give the office an ability to influence internal affairs investigations, possibly affecting their outcome.
“The fact that he can do that makes it a bargaining issue,” Beggs said.
City officials have long argued that under state law, if the ombudsman has any influence on an officer’s discipline, the ombudsman’s role must first be approved by the police union.
Beggs wants to revise the ordinance to remove the ombudsman’s ability to ask questions or recommend cases be reopened, removing any hint of involvement with officer discipline. That, in turn, would strengthen the ombudsman’s ability to conduct truly independent investigations and issue reports and recommendations based on their findings. The ombudsman would still be able to sit in on internal affairs interviews, Beggs said.
He hopes to have a revised ordinance ready before the city begins negotiations with the Police Guild and Lieutenants and Captains Association this summer.
The plan is likely to encounter some resistance from members of the civilian commission overseeing the ombudsman’s office. At a March 21 meeting, Commissioner Jenny Rose, the president of the Spokane Education Association, said she was opposed to cutting the unions out.
“I’m just totally appalled that somebody would rework the ordinance to bypass the Police Guild,” she said. Commissioner Scott Richter agreed.
Lt. Dave McCabe, president of the Lieutenants and Captains Association, said he hadn’t heard the details of Beggs’ proposal yet, but said he thought removing the ombudsman’s ability to ask questions during internal investigations would reduce the quality of oversight.
“Without the ability to ask questions of people interviewed in IA investigations … I think you take away not only his legitimacy, but take away what teeth that he does have,” McCabe said. No members of the association have approached him seeking changes in the ombudsman ordinance, he said.
Guild President Sgt. John Griffin did not respond to multiple emails seeking comment.
Beggs, a lawyer who once headed Spokane’s Center for Justice, has been a longtime advocate for police reform and was a strong supporter of a change to the city charter that aimed to give the ombudsman independent investigative powers. Spokane voters overwhelmingly approved the proposition in February 2013, but its terms had to be negotiated with the Spokane Police Guild.
The ordinance eventually approved one year later allowed the ombudsman to forward complaints to the police department, sit in on internal affairs investigations and hire a third-party investigator if the police department declined to do an internal investigation. That compromise was criticized by many who had pushed for reform, who saw it as a watered-down version of a truly independent oversight system.
Whether his proposal is approved or not, Beggs said, the city will have a stronger bargaining position if it enters negotiations with a new ordinance completed. A rewritten ordinance could be included in the contract without giving the mayor or the guild power to revise it line by line, as happened in 2013, Beggs said.
The independent investigation powers included in the current ordinance have never been tested, in part thanks to the yearlong vacancy in the office following the resignation of former ombudsman Tim Burns in late 2014. Currently, the ombudsman’s office has about five pending requests for independent investigations, Beggs said.
Beggs said giving up the power to ask questions in internal cases would be well worth the gains in independent oversight. He said the ombudsman was never intended to be an “extrajudicial process” for police officer discipline.
“It’s about civilians finding out what really happened, and then they can make their political decisions accordingly,” Beggs said.
Beggs and commission Chairwoman Deb Conklin also hope to revise the cumbersome ombudsman hiring process outlined in the current city ordinance, which requires a five-member selection committee to review applications, conduct interviews and forward three finalists to the commission. The selection committee has one representative each from both police unions, the mayor’s office and the City Council, with a fifth person chosen by the other four.
That process caused frustration among commissioners after the selection committee, which convened in February 2015, took until July to forward names for a permanent ombudsman, leaving the office vacant. Two of the finalists for ombudsman eventually were rejected by the commission, and a third is still waiting to hear back on a visa application after the commission voted to hire him nearly six months ago.
“It was a deeply flawed process,” Conklin said.
She said she’d like to consider amending the ordinance to allow staff in the ombudsman’s office to perform some of the ombudsman’s duties so the office can still fulfill its role if the ombudsman is on vacation or resigns.
The ombudsman commission will hold a community forum at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday in the City Council chambers to take public input on changes to the ombudsman ordinance. Some council members, including Beggs, also will attend.
Beggs said he hopes law enforcement officers and community members will attend and provide feedback.
“Too often, the ombudsman process has been perceived as really one-sided” either in favor of or against police, he said. “The ombudsman should be for everyone.”
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