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Police ombudsman

Tim Burns was hired in 2009 as Spokane’s police ombudsman.


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.

Burns also launched a website in June 2010 where people can access forms to make a complaint, ask a question or make a suggestion.

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.

An ordinance creating the ombudsman position was aired at a council hearing in September 2008. The council unanimously backed it that October. In February 2009, the search to fill the position began.

The Spokane Police Guild endorsed Burns in the less powerful role, and the City Council hired Burns in June 2009.

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.

Latest updates in this topic

Lichty takes aim at mayor for “broken promise” on police oversight

Mayoral candidate Shar Lichty is taking aim at Mayor David Condon for what she says is a failure to provide independent police oversight in Spokane.

Lichty, an organizer with the Peace and Justice Action League of Spokane, sent out a news release Wednesday criticizing Condon's administration for being "a consistent obstacle to bringing true oversight to the Office of Police Ombudsman, as mandated by the City Charter."

At a public forum Tuesday night, she also urged police ombudsman commissioners to reject all three ombudsman candidates offered by the city.

She said online comments made by finalist Allen Huggins about protests in Baltimore and the Black Lives Matter movement should have eliminated him from consideration.

"It is painfully obvious that the selection committee did not do their due diligence," she said.

She told commissioners to ask the ombudsman selection committee to forward names for an interim ombudsman candidate instead, then do a new search for a permanent ombudsman. 

The full text of the news release is below:

Mayor Condon has not only broken his campaign promise to bring accountability and transparency to the police department but has been a consistent obstacle to bringing true oversight to the Office of Police Ombudsman, as mandated by the City Charter.

  • Despite 69% of the voters mandating independent investigative authority for the OPO through a Charter amendment, Condon’s administration failed to negotiate the issue with the Police Guild in 2013.
  • Condon’s administration failed to staff the OPO in a timely manner despite requests from the Ombudsman Commission and Council to put an interim in place.
  • Failure to have an OPO in place directly led to the situation with OPO staff that led to the dismissal of three OPO Commissioners.
  • Lack of transparency between the OPO selection committee and the OPOC has led the public to question whether the three finalists for OPO are truly the best qualified for the position.
  • Condon’s administration failed to provide staffing capacity to do community engagement concerning the OPO interviews and thus providing a more accurate public perception of the candidates to assist the OPOC in making a decision.

“Condon’s actions, or lack thereof, concerning the Ombusdman are like a slap in the face of the voters, put the City in violation of the Charter, and leave the City susceptible to lawsuits. Even our three finalists for OPO clearly understand that the current ordinance is not in compliance with the Charter and the will of the voters,” said Shar Lichty. “As a community leader who has worked on this issue for six years, I have done more to give the Ombudsman independent investigative authority than Mayor Condon ever has, ever will, and ever intended to.”

Selection committee for new ombudsman struggles to select final member

Pastor Shon Davis and Whitworth University history professor Lawrence Burnley were among the names considered for the final seat on the committee to search for a new Spokane police ombudsman.

But after a half-hour of sometimes pointed discussion Tuesday morning, the committee’s four members agreed to hold off on selecting a community representative until candidates could be interviewed.

The committee, which is composed of City Attorney Nancy Isserlis, ombudsman Commissioner Adrian Dominguez, Spokane Police Capt. Brad Arleth and Sgt. John Griffin, identified Davis and Tommy Williams, president of the faith-based organization Operation Healthy Family, as top candidates for the seat at an informal meeting last week.

But Dominguez said Tuesday that conversations with several members of Spokane’s NAACP raised concerns that Davis and Williams did not have enough community support to serve on the search committee.


Condon asks Police Guild for contract changes

Spokane Mayor David Condon is heeding the advice of Spokane City Council members who have pushed him to reopen contract negotiations with the Spokane Police Guild.

The mayor and guild agreed to a tentative four-year labor contract last fall, but that deal was rejected by the City Council in November. It was nearly rejected a second time in December before the council opted to delay a vote until Feb. 3.

City officials confirmed this week that administrators have sent proposed changes to the proposed contract to the mediator working with the city and guild. Condon met in a private session with the City Council on Monday to talk about negotiations with the guild. City spokesman Brian Coddington said he could not provide details on the city’s most recent proposal.

Early this year, City Council President Ben Stuckart sent a letter to Condon urging him to reopen negotiations to spare the council from rejecting the deal again.

Spokane police watchdog reappointed, details jump in internal complaints

Last night was a big one for Tim Burns, the Spokane Police ombudsman.

He was reappointed for another one-year term, setting him off on his fifth year as the civilian watchdog for Spokane police. Burns was appointed for a three-year term in 2009 by then-Mayor Mary Verner. His one year extension last night came from Mayor David Condon and a unanimous vote by the City Council.

Burns also unveiled his 2013 mid-year report, which contained some surprising numbers.

First, of the 142 complaints against the department in the first six months of the year, 75 were classified as formal. Of those 75, 15 came from within the department. This is a huge jump when compared to the same time period last year, when just three complaints were internally generated, of 46 total complaints.

Burns told the City Council the increase was notable, but he was unable to say what might be driving the change. 

Burns also noted a decrease in taser use by police, which happened 14 times in 11 incidents this year. In the first six months of 2012, a taser was used 25 times in 21 incidents.

Finally, Burns said he was concerned by the increase in SWAT activations. In the first half of 2012, SWAT was called out 21 times. This year, it happened 29 times.

Check out the whole report on the ombudsman's website, or read it here.

Condon relents on ombudsman

Spokane’s first police ombudsman will keep his job for another year.

Mayor David Condon decided in August not to renew Ombudsman Tim Burns’ three-year contract. The move angered some City Council members, who questioned why Condon was willing to let the city go without an ombudsman even as the city works through recent scandals involving police misconduct.

Condon argued that it didn’t make sense to rehire Burns for three more years until the city’s Use of Force Commission makes its final recommendation about a new oversight model. The city’s ombudsman law only allowed for three-year terms.

After outcry from the City Council, however, Condon soon reversed course, offering to let Burns stay until the end of the year, and the council changed the law to allow flexibility in the length of ombudsman’s tenure.

On Monday, the City Council approved unanimously a deal between Condon and Burns that allows Burns to continue leading the city’s police oversight program until Aug. 2.

Spokane hosts national ombudsman conference

With the future of Spokane's police ombudsman program in question, the city soon will be awash in government ombudsmen (and women) arriving for an international conference on public oversight.

The United States Ombudsman Association is gathering in Spokane for its 33rd annual conference Oct. 8 to 12 at the Red Lion Inn at the Park. Training opportunities include a session on conducting independent investigations, which is a hot-button issue in Spokane where the police ombudsman is prohibited from investigating allegations of police misconduct.

Spokane's office of Police Ombudsman is hosting the conference. Last month, Spokane Mayor David Condon stunned the City Council and others by announcing the departure of the city's first police ombudsman, Tim Burns, whose contract is expiring and wasn't being renewed. Condon later asked Burns to stay through the end of the year.

Among the reasons Condon gave for avoiding a new contract for Burns is that the city could be changing the way it oversees police conduct after the mayor's Use of Force Commission completes its study of the police department.

Council may fight Condon on Burns’ dismissal

The Spokane City Council appears ready to challenge Mayor David Condon’s decision to release the city’s police ombudsman.

Condon has decided not to renew Ombudsman Tim Burns’ three-year contract. His last day is Oct. 31, though he’ll be using up vacation for the last month.

Council President Ben Stuckart said Friday that he is sponsoring a resolution requesting that Condon keep Burns on as ombudsman at least until a new police oversight system is in place. He hopes to win at least five votes for the proposal so a vote can take place on Monday.

Spokane losing first police ombudsman

Spokane’s first police ombudsman will soon be out of a job, and the city may be without a permanent replacement for several months.

Mayor David Condon has decided not to renew Ombudsman Tim Burns’ three-year contract that expires Aug. 24, said City Administrator Theresa Sanders. He will keep his job, however, until Oct. 31.

Sanders said Condon was uncomfortable extending Burns’ stay for the long term because the position is likely to change. The city’s Use of Force Commission is due to release its final recommendations for a reformed police oversight model next month. Condon also has said he will select a new police chief by the end of this month.

Read the rest of SR reporter Jonathan Brunt's article here.

Chief OKs probe into alleged misconduct

Spokane County Jail inmate Justin Anest is pictured in 2006. He filed a federal civil rights lawsuit for a 2004 beating in the county jail. He claims to have been beaten again over the weekend in September 2006. The lawsuit was dismissed. Anest filed the complant that led to the dispute between the ombdusman and interim police chief. (SRarchives)

A disagreement between the interim Spokane police chief and the ombudsman about how a police misconduct allegation should be investigated has been resolved after witnesses came forward with new information.

A meeting scheduled last Friday between Interim Chief Scott Stephens, Ombudsman Tim Burns and Mayor David Condon never happened because Stephens informed Condon of his intention to investigate the accusation that police bruised a woman’s arms while handcuffing her at her home in early April.

Read the rest of my story here, which includes comment from the complanient, Justin Anest, and information on his background.

SPD ombudsman dispute going to mayor

A disagreement between the interim Spokane police chief and the police ombudsman about the handling of a recent complaint is getting the mayor’s attention.

 Ombudsman Tim Burns is asking Mayor David Condon to force the Spokane Police Department to investigate a complaint that arose when officers responded to a report of possible domestic violence at a home in the city.

Read the rest of my story here.

Police Guild promises to negotiate in good faith for reform

Spokane Police Guild officials announced in a news release Monday that the union "embraces" a police reform resolution that the Spokane City Council is likely to approve tonight.

"The Guild wants to thank the Council members for recognizing that many of the steps presented in the resolution may affect the working conditions of represented employees and would need to be negotiated with the affected unions," the news release said. "The City Council can expect the Guild to negotiate in good faith."

The guild agreed to the city's first rules that created the police ombudsman but successfully challenged an update to the job's powers last year. The resolution in front of City Council tonight calls not only for the reinstatement of the ombudsman's independent oversight powers, but for the police chief to be able to use ombudsman reports when considering discipline.

Interim Police Chief Scott Stephens has said he would support the upgraded ombudsman rules.

"I believe the officers actually developed kind of a favorable opinion of that (the stronger police ombudsman ordinance that was repealed). The guild of course is taking a look at this and just saying, 'We don't have objections to that in principle. Again we just want to make sure that if you're going to do this we want to be at the table.' They felt like things were being done to them without their input and I think that's why they threw the roadblock up there."

A call to Guild President Erinie Wuthrich was not immediately returned.

Coalition calls on candidates to take ombudsman pledge

A coalition of organizations including the Peace and Justice Action League of Spokane is asking Spokane mayoral and City Council candidates to pledge not to vote for a Spokane Police Guild contract unless it includes stronger oversight.

The guild's contract expires at the end of the year and is under negotiation currently.

Earlier this month, the City Council repealed its 2010 police oversight law at the demand of an arbitrator, who ruled that it violated the guild's contract. The law gave Ombudsman Tim Burns the right to investigate allegations of police misconduct separately from the police department's internal affairs division.

The city is now operating under its 2008 police ombudsman rules.

Those who voted to repeal the law said the best way to obtain the provisions in the 2010 law are win guild approval of them through negotiations. Some council member said they would be unlikely to vote for guild contract unless the extra oversight is included in it.

League Director Liz Moore said pledge supporters will give candidates until the end of the week to decide if they will sign the pledge. Results will be publicized early next week.


City Council limits ombudsman powers

Spokane’s police ombudsman on Monday lost the power to independently investigate misconduct allegations against the city’s law enforcement officers.

The Spokane City Council voted 5-2 Monday to repeal police oversight rules it approved unanimously last year, blaming an arbitrator’s decision in July that determined the expanded powers violated the Spokane Police Guild’s labor contract.

Read the rest of Jon Brunt's story here.

Past coverage:

Aug. 23: Council debates police oversight rules

July 13: Police ombudsman rules downgraded

Council hires second attorney to defend police ombudsman rules

The Spokane City Council isn’t giving up on stronger police oversight, at least not for two more weeks.

The council voted 6-0 this week to delay action on the possible repeal of the city’s 2010 police ombudsman law to give it time to hire an outside attorney to analyze the possible appeal of an arbitrator’s July decision demanding that the city remove the ordinance.

The law, which strengthened the city’s original ombudsman rules from 2008, gave Ombudsman Tim Burns the power to investigate accusations of police misconduct separately from the police department’s own reviews. 

City council looks at police oversight

Spokane City Council members suggested they may need voters to save the stronger police oversight rules they approved last year, by working to place the concept on the ballot.

Passions were high during the council’s Monday meeting as they discussed overturning police oversight rules. The debate included a few shouting matches between attendees and Council President Joe Shogan.

Read the rest of Jon Brunt's story here.

Past coverage:

July 13: Police ombudsman rules downgraded

As city deals with more revelations in Zehm case, Verner campaign points to ombudsman

Mayor Mary Verner latest campaign newsletter picks a topic fresh in the news: police oversight.

Last week, Verner's campaign stressed her support for creating a police ombudsman position at City Hall. The week before, a filing in federal court detailed the position of Assistant Police Chief Jim Nicks related to the death of Otto Zehm, who died in police custody in 2006. Nicks has told federal investigators that Officer Karl F. Thompson Jr. violated department use-of-force policies and that detectives failed to thoroughly investigate Zehm's death.

Verner has indeed been on record supporting the creation of the position for some time, but she hasn't always pushed for the kind of independent, full-time ombudsman that was envisioned in a 2007 report commissioned by the city.

In 2008, Verner said that instead of hiring a full-time ombudsman, she planned to contract out for an ombudsman on an as-needed basis because of the city's budget problems.

In a meeting with journalists in March 2008, Verner explained that a full-time ombudsman wasn't necessary.

"I don’t really think that we need an in-house, full-time employee for an ombudsman," Verner told reporters. "I really believe that with Chief (Anne) Kirkpatrick’s leadership and the evolving good working relationship between the guild and the chief that we would have a Maytag Repairman on our hands."

Verner's position, however, had changed when she unveiled her 2009 budget plan, which included money for a full-time ombudsman, and her newsletter is correct that she conducted a nationwide search in an open process when she hired Ombudsman Tim Burns.

Since Burns started work, some council members pushed to give Burns the power to conduct investigations separately from police. Verner initially opposed that effort, and said that it was too soon to change Burns' powers and that doing so would require negotiations with the Spokane Police Guild.

Verner argued that during an economic downturn, her goals for Police Guild negotiations were for concessions to save jobs and service over gaining more police oversight authority. Verner signed the ordinance boosting Burns' authority after the council passed it unanimously. Next week, the council will consider revoking the ordinance in response to an arbitrator who ruled that the city should have negotiated the rules with the guild.

That action, along with the ongoing federal case against Thompson, will keep police oversight one of the top issues of the campaign even after Tuesday's primary.

Today’s prediction: Fireworks ahead on ombudsman

This doesn't take a crystal ball or Karnak the Great: The city of Spokane and some of its citizens groups are headed for a heated fight over the current police ombudsman's ordinance.

The Center for Justice and others today are urging the city to appeal a recent arbitrator's decision that the expanded powers for the ombudsman had to be negotiated with the Police Guild. The council, meanwhile, is considering whether to repeal the 2010 ordinance that expanded those powers and go back to the previous configuration.

Read the full story about it here.

Police ombudsman rules downgraded

An arbitrator this week revoked a law that strengthened Spokane’s police ombudsman powers because the city did not consult the Spokane Police Guild before it was approved last year.

The decision by arbitrator Michael H. Beck effectively reverses rules that strengthened the ability of police Ombudsman Tim Burns to investigate alleged officer misconduct independently of police. The opinion was dated Monday; the city received it Tuesday.

The power to examine police wrongdoing separate from the police department’s own investigators is a change in working conditions that must be negotiated with the guild, Beck ruled.

Read the rest of the story here.

Past coverage:

June 29: Spokane police ombudsman gains power

Sheriff, ombudsman want patrol cameras

For police agencies, cameras that record officer encounters with the public can help prove suspects are guilty and set the record straight if officers are wrongly accused of misconduct.

“It tells you the facts,” Post Falls police Capt. Pat Knight said. “It keeps us out of trouble.”

Over the years, law enforcement officials in Spokane County have largely dismissed cameras as not worth the cost. But as agencies deal with high-profile cases of alleged misconduct, the cameras are getting a new look.

Spokane police Ombudsman Tim Burns recommended in his annual report to City Council earlier this month that cameras be installed in police cars to provide definitive evidence in cases that otherwise would be mostly the officer’s word against the accuser’s.

Read Jonathan Brunt's full story here.

Marijuana legalization supporters interrupt Spokane council meeting

Tonight's Spokane City Council meeting was halted for about three minutes after a few protesters stood in the audience and initially refused to sit or leave the room.

The protesters were from Sensible Washington, a group that supports marijuana legalization. They stood during the annual report to the council from Police Ombudsman Tim Burns, prompting City Council President Joe Shogan to order them to sit or leave.

Rebeckah Aubertin, who said she is the Spokane recruiter for Sensible Washington, held two large signs. One read: "Stop funding dirty cops." Another said: "Prohibition hurts family."

When they refused to comply Shogan asked Police Detective Ben Estes to remove them and the meeting stopped.

Referring to the money the city spends for a police ombudsman's office, Aubertin told the crowd, "Fiscal responsibility would be nice, as well."

Shogan responded: "I don't know what the hell you're talking about, lady, but that's fine."

After talking with the protesters for a couple minutes, Estes persuaded them to leave and he escorted them outside the council chambers peacefully. About ten people from Sensible Washington stayed in the lobby of the chambers for most the rest of the meeting.

Tim Loe, who also was escorted from the meeting, said he was protesting because he has been repeatedly harassed by police as a result of his use of medical marijuana.

At one point during his negotiations with the protesters, Estes told Aubertin that signs were not permitted in the hearing.

Aubertin claimed that she wasn't holding protest signs: "These are art projects," she said.

Shogan overheard the conversation.

"Yeah, and I'm Leonardo da Vinci," he said.

Burns' report is available here.