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Sunday, February 23, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Spokane’s police ombudsman ready to listen, earn trust

Tim Burns is adjusting to his role as  Spokane’s new police ombudsman.  (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Tim Burns is adjusting to his role as Spokane’s new police ombudsman. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

Spokane’s first police ombudsman, Tim Burns, started work late last month, nearly a year after the City Council created the position amid public outcry over police conduct. Burns, 55, moved to Spokane from Visalia, Calif., where he enforced codes as a neighborhood preservation manager. He also spent 22 years as a police officer in Los Gatos, Calif. For now, he’s working out of a temporary office in Spokane City Hall, but he plans to set up office space at community centers around the city. He discussed his plans in an interview last week.

Q.What are you doing to get started?

A.I’ve started to review a lot of the policies and practices that the police have. A lot of what I suspect I’ll be doing is being an active listener. I’m looking to reach out to people who feel they may not have been heard in the past. I need to be in tune with what their perception of what my role is while maintaining a level of impartiality. To be independent is critical. I need to be outside the traditional boundaries of city government so I can help foster that sense of independence.

Q.You won’t be doing your own investigations but you’ll be participating in internal investigations. How will you prepare?

A.Doing the interviews will be the easy part. To do the review will be the more technical part. To make sure all of the components of a thorough investigation are complete. It can never be just business as usual. You have to be very cautious and wary. What I do or don’t do can have a direct impact on someone’s life.

Q.What are your first impressions of the city?

A.The downtown is a magnet for people. It’s just a hub of activity. If you can fall in love with a downtown in a city, everything gets better after that.

Q.How will you get to know the city?

A.I’m going to sit in on council meetings and reach out to the different nonprofits. I’ve got a bus pass, so one of the things I’ll do in my spare time is start riding the buses to see what’s out there. In a lot of cases, I just would like to be a fly on the wall, to be privy to the daily conversation to get to know the city.

Q.What are you looking forward to?

A.I’ll be happy when we get to the point where I understand my role in the community, where I’ve earned the community’s trust and I can focus on not only those items but the issues brought to the ombudsman. I’m a little concerned that there had been some comments made that the community was uneasy about the lack of investigative oversight. I hope to look at that during annual reviews, when we have enough time to see whether the tools we have already are effective, which I’m hopeful they are. But I’m hoping the council will be open to hearing more suggestions.

Q.Any final words?

A.I hope the community will give me the opportunity and the program the opportunity to prove itself. I’m just looking forward to moving forward. You can’t undo a mistake that was made, but if you can learn from what was done, then I think that’s huge.

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