In June 2010, the Spokane City Council granted police Ombudsman Tim Burns the power to investigate cases of officer misconduct.
Until then, Burns could only monitor the Spokane Police Department’s internal investigations into alleged wrongdoing by reviewing police reports and sitting in on detective interviews. If he believed that a police review was unfair or incomplete, Burns was limited to asking the chief or mayor to order further review or to withhold his stamp of approval from the official police review. Now he can conduct his own review as well as sit in on internal investigations.
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 September 2011, the state Public Employment Relations Commission rejected a request from the City Council to consider overturning the arbitrator’s decision blocking the expansion.
The council is weighing whether to repeal its expansion of the ombudsman investigative power, or to appeal the arbitrator’s decision.
Some nonprofit groups had criticized the limited role of the ombudsman, saying a stronger ombudsman who could investigate cases independently would create trust between citizens and officers.
Shortly after she became Spokane’s new police chief in 2006, Anne Kirkpatrick hired Seattle lawyer Sam Pailca to recommend a new oversight system for Spokane. After a series of public meetings, Pailca wrote a report recommending a full-time, professional ombudsman to replace Spokane’s defunct, all-volunteer Citizens Review Commission. That commission had little real power and no staff or budget, and it had not reviewed a misconduct case in a decade.
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.”
Updated Sept. 29, 2011.