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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

City reaches deal with police guild about oversight

Karen Dorn Steele Staff writer

Spokane Mayor Mary Verner and the Spokane Police Guild have reached a tentative agreement on a new ombudsman’s office that would review citizen complaints but leave officer discipline to the police chief.

Citizen pressure for a new oversight system for the Spokane Police Department 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 at a North Side convenience store.

Under state labor law, the Office of Police Ombudsman 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 must approve it with a vote anticipated by mid-May, Verner said in an interview.

If that happens, she hopes to have the job filled by midsummer. She said she has no particular candidate in mind, but wants a “neutral” person, preferably someone who has had previous ombudsman experience and is used to working under a code of ethics. There is $200,000 in the city’s 2008 budget for the oversight office.

Verner said the ombudsman, in addition to reviewing complaints, would issue annual reports and monitor trends in the Police Department. She said she hadn’t decided whether it will be a full-time job.

The new plan “achieves my objectives for accountability and transparency. I want to thank the Guild for their willingness to work in good faith on this issue and will recommend adoption to the City Council,” she said.

Police will have a major influence on the ombudsman’s selection, according to the tentative agreement.

Ernie Wuthrich, Spokane Police Guild president, said having an ombudsman “is a way to build greater community confidence in Spokane’s police force.”

Police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick, who has backed the ombudsman but insisted on retaining her power to discipline her officers, said the new office will be “a watchdog on me and my performance.”

“I welcome that review and oversight,” Kirkpatrick added.

Shortly after she became Spokane’s new police chief in 2006, Kirkpatrick hired Seattle lawyer Sam Pailca, the former civilian head of Seattle’s police oversight office, 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 – not even the controversial Zehm case.

The ombudsman will be chosen by a five-member committee that includes two members appointed by the Spokane Police Officers Guild and the Lieutenants and Captains Association, a member chosen by City Council President Joe Shogan, a member chosen by Verner, and a fifth person selected by the other four council members. If the police guild doesn’t like the person selected, it can file a grievance that would go to an arbitrator.

The selection process is a step backward from Pailca’s recommendation that the mayor and City Council pick the ombudsman to ensure an arms-length relationship with the police, said Breean Beggs, of the Center for Justice, a public interest law firm.

“This makes the ombudsman less independent than Pailca called for,” Beggs said.

Verner said she wants police representatives to vet the selection. “I agree with that structure,” she said.

Some of the ombudsman’s powers would be more circumscribed than called for last year by some people who attended a series of public hearings on police oversight sponsored by the American Civil Liberties Union, the Peace and Justice Action League of Spokane and the Center for Justice.

For instance, the ombudsman’s office would be barred from releasing the names of any police officers involved in incidents or investigations – and it would not be able to retain investigative files for more than one year.

In addition, the ombudsman would “actively monitor” all Police Department internal investigations but would not be allowed to participate in criminal investigations of police officers and “shall not take issue with discipline imposed by the Chief of Police in specific cases,” the agreement says.

The agreement is also silent on whether the ombudsman would have subpoena powers.

The agreement cannot be altered without going back to the police guilds for more negotiations, Verner said.

Beggs called for a public hearing on the ombudsman plan. “This is simply a draft. But it’s good news that we now have a concrete proposal,” he said.