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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Protest outdraws ombudsman forum

Only two residents ask questions of candidates

Peace and Justice Action League of Spokane director Liz Moore called for independent oversight of the Spokane Police Department on Friday. “Anything less is insulting to the people of this community and won’t repair the relationship between the Police Department and the people they’re supposed to protect and serve,” she said.  (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
By Kevin Graman and Sara Leaming The Spokesman-Review

The warmest day of the year appeared to be enough to keep crowds from a Friday meet and greet with the three finalists vying to be Spokane’s first police ombudsman.

Fewer than a dozen people – including two residents and a few city staff members – showed up in the City Council chambers for the first of three public forums with candidates Tony Betz, Tim Burns and Greg Weber.

“I was surprised by the turnout,” said Mike Cronin, one of two community members who capitalized on the opportunity to quiz each candidate.

The low attendance at the forum set up by city leaders was in contrast to events earlier in the day at the Chase Gallery inside City Hall. There, a coalition of social activist organizations demanded a halt to a process they see as flawed.

“Fix it before you fill it,” said Liz Moore, director of the Peace and Justice Action League of Spokane, which took the lead in organizing opposition to hiring an ombudsman who will lack independent investigative authority over police.

“Even the best candidate for this position will be hamstrung and toothless” without the authority to conduct independent investigations and “will only deepen distrust between citizens and police,” Moore said.

Neither Mayor Mary Verner nor any council members were present to hear the coalition’s demands.

“We’ve seen this cycle in Spokane before: a horrible incident of misconduct or racism, followed by righteous public outrage, followed by meaningless reform that’s just a waste of time and money,” said Deb Abrahamson, a Spokane tribal member and director of the SHAWL Society, an advocacy group based on the Spokane Indian Reservation.

Other speakers included representatives of the low-income advocacy group VOICES, the Spokane affiliates of the National Alliance on Mental Illness and the Progressive Democrats of America, as well as Shonto Pete, an American Indian who survived being shot by an off-duty Spokane police officer in 2007.

At 5 p.m., city staff presented to a much smaller crowd the three finalists for ombudsman: Betz, a retired FBI official and Texas A&M University instructor; Burns, a retired police officer and neighborhood preservation officer for Visalia, Calif.; and Spokane attorney Weber, a former deputy director of the state Attorney General’s Medicaid Fraud Control Unit and deputy prosecutor in Okanogan and Pierce counties.

Only the two community members asked questions, including about the handling of the 2006 death of Otto Zehm, who died after being beaten and tied in police custody during the investigation of a crime he did not commit, and the shooting of Pete. The two incidents were the catalyst for creation of the ombudsman position.

Cronin wanted to know how the candidates would ease the community’s mistrust of police, especially following those events. After the forum, Cronin said he favored Weber, because he was the only one without a background in law enforcement.

“I think he’s the gentleman who can bridge the gap between our community and the Police Department,” Cronin said. The other two candidates are “like the fox watching the hen house.”

The City Council approved the ombudsman position last year after negotiations with the city’s police unions, which by law have a say in police oversight. But in doing so, the council disregarded many of the recommendations of a consultant hired by the city.

The ombudsman will be able to send complaints to the department’s Internal Affairs office but cannot conduct his own review or release names of principals in complaints.

The coalition protesting Friday prepared a draft of a proposed ordinance to establish an independent office of police oversight to substitute for the ombudsman ordinance approved by the council.