Citizen pressure for a new oversight system for the Spokane Police Department originally mounted after several high-profile incidents, including the 2006 death of Otto Zehm, a mentally disabled man who died after he was Tasered and beaten by police officers.
Under state labor law, the office had to be negotiated with the city’s police unions, which have been working on it since last fall. The Spokane Police Guild membership still had to approve it, which they did in an official vote in June 2008.
Burns’ first report as ombudsman came in April 2010, when he concluded 18 of 19 internal investigations into police actions were “timely, thorough and objective.”
In June 2010, the Spokane City Council granted police Ombudsman Tim Burns the power to investigate cases of officer misconduct. But in July 2011, a labor arbitrator demanded the city repeal the council’s ordinance strengthening ombudsman powers because the city did not consult the Spokane Police Guild before approving the change.
In 2013, Spokane voters passed proposition 1, which granted the ombudsman powers to independently investigate police misconduct. The city reached an agreementwith the police union several months later about those powers, but many supporters of police oversight said the new contract did not give the ombudsman enough power to conduct a truly independent investigation.
The city ordinance also called for a five-member citizen commission to oversee the ombudsman’s office. Commissioners were seated in the fall of 2014. Burns resigned several months later, saying he wanted to spend more time with his family.
A city investigation into alleged harassment by several commission members revealed Burns had left in part because he found some commissioners difficult to work with. The investigation led to the resignation of commissioners Adrian Dominguez and Kevin Berkompas, and the removal of chair Rachel Dolezal. New commissioners were appointed in the summer of 2015, and the commission began meeting again in August.
The city began a search for a new police ombudsman in early 2015, and forwarded names of three finalist candidates to the commission in July. Commissioners repeatedly criticized the selection committee for not selecting interim ombudsman candidates or doing more thourough vetting of finalists.
A lifelong Florida law enforcement officer, Robert Breeden, was the apparent front-runner for a new ombudsman after community itnerviews, but commissioners held off on hiring him in September 2015 until a background investigation can be completed.
The long vacancy in the ombudsman office has led to talk among commissioners and city council members of revamping the ombudsman’s office to make it easier for someone to fill in for the ombudsman in case of illness, vacation or resignation.
Updated Oct. 23, 2015.
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Mary Verner on union contracts, police ombudsman
Spokane Mayor Mary Verner talks Oct. 12, 2009, about the state of negotiations with city unions and Councilman Bob Apple’s proposed resolution seeking investigatory powers for the police ombudsman