Spokane City Hall is gearing up for another round in the long-standing bout between state labor laws and the public’s desire to scrutinize behavior and discipline in the Spokane Police Department.
Mayor David Condon, Councilmen Breean Beggs and Mike Fagan as well as representatives of the Spokane Police Guild and Lieutenants and Captains Association heard from a gymnasium full of police accountability advocates Wednesday at the Northeast Community Center.
The meeting fulfilled a 4-year-old recommendation to increase public input in the bargaining process with the unions, both of which have labor agreements expiring Dec. 31.
The floor was open to anyone who wanted to discuss wages, working conditions or use-of-force policies. Speakers instead focused mostly on the powers vested in Police Ombudsman Bart Logue and the refrain that Logue lacked the oversight intended when voters overwhelmingly approved an addition to the city charter on civilian oversight in 2013.
That issue has led to numerous appeals to state agencies, delays in collective bargaining and other issues since the ombudsman’s office was created in 2008 to address perceived bias in how the police investigate themselves.
Tim Connor, an organizer with the Spokane Police Accountability & Reform Coalition, accused Condon and his bargaining team of failing to negotiate the authority for Logue to prepare his own reports and issue findings that may conflict with those of an Internal Affairs review process. The ombudsman ordinance permits Logue only to certify that internal probes are timely, thorough and objective.
“Our request for the mayor, and for the city’s negotiator, is to negotiate what 70 percent of Spokane voters voted for in 2013,” Connor said. “That’s what we thought Prop 1 was all about.”
Proposition 1, an amendment to the city charter establishing an ombudsman with “independent” investigative authority, was passed after the police guild successfully challenged a previous attempt to imbue the ombudsman with investigative power through a city ordinance. The state’s Public Employment Relations Commission declared the attempt an unfair labor practice because it wasn’t negotiated with the Guild.
Condon, responding to Connor, said a so-called “relief valve” added at his request to the ombudsman ordinance provides the opportunity for another ombudsman-led investigation if the probe was deemed insufficient by a civilian commission. The relief valve, he added, was an attempt to reconcile the demands of voters for “independent” oversight with existing state and local laws, which also prohibit the ombudsman compelling participation in their investigation.
“My interpretation is that you couldn’t be independent without having subpoena power,” Condon said. “We’ll agree to disagree about whether I directed to have independence.”
Other members of the police reform coalition said that relief valve compromise, agreed to by the City Council and the guild in 2014, left a perceived gap between the city’s laws and the charter amendment.
“In my view, right now, the conflict is that the city charter mandates independent investigations and closing reports,” said Liz Moore, director of the Peace and Justice Action League of Spokane. “Fundamentally, the current ordinance doesn’t allow that.”
Logue said after the meeting he’s still working through the backlog of cases left when the ombudsman’s office went vacant for more than a year. He said he had a good working relationship with the department’s Internal Affairs investigators, who’ve yet to deny one of his requests for further questioning or information about a particular case.
Spokane police Lt. Dave McCabe, president of the Lieutenants and Captains Association, told attendees his organization was committed to civilian oversight. John Griffin, president of the Spokane Police Guild, also attended, accompanied by past president of the union, John Gately. Both McCabe and Griffin spoke about the department’s overtime policies, with Griffin saying mounting costs could be attributed in part to a need for more officers.
Beggs said after the meeting that his goal is to finalize a new ombudsman ordinance that gives Logue the ability to prepare conclusive reports before bargaining with the unions is completed. He said he didn’t believe that issue needed to be bargained, because those reports couldn’t result in discipline.
Logue said the city’s charter sets up dual roles for his office, both as an investigator and an auditor of the department. The future ordinance should be carefully crafted to adhere to the charges in the charter, he said, and to avoid any potential violation of the state’s labor laws as the city moves forward with police contract negotiations.
“The ordinance has to fit the charter, and it has to be achievable,” Logue said. “It has to be successful, or what’s the point?”
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