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

Greater ombudsman powers urged

Coalition says police oversight isn’t independent

A coalition of organizations called on Spokane City Hall last week to create stronger oversight of its police force, but some elected leaders say they want to give the new ombudsman system time before changing it.

Last fall, the Spokane City Council unanimously passed a resolution asking Mayor Mary Verner to push during union contract negotiations to give the police ombudsman the power to independently investigate reports of law enforcement abuses.

The final contract approved in December, however, did not include increased powers for Ombudsman Tim Burns, who was hired last summer. Verner said such powers were discussed in negotiations, but her priority in union talks was to find savings to prevent layoffs.

At a news conference led by the Peace and Justice Action League of Spokane this week, nonprofit leaders said a stronger ombudsman who could investigate cases independently would create trust between citizens and officers.

“The city keeps finding one excuse after another why we can’t have official, independent police oversight. Then the problem just continues,” said Kiondra Bullock, executive director of VOICES, a nonprofit group that advocates for low-income people.

But Verner said she’s impressed with the new ombudsman and notes that he hasn’t asked for additional authority. City Council President Joe Shogan said having so recently created the office, changing Burns’ duties probably isn’t a top priority.

“I don’t have a lot of people calling me up on this topic,” Shogan said. “I feel that if (Burns) felt he needed these (powers) to do his job, that he would come back and tell us.”

Since former Mayor Dennis Hession and police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick endorsed creating an ombudsman program in 2007, the city has said details must be negotiated with the Spokane Police Guild.

But the Center for Justice, a public interest law firm in Spokane, argues that as long as the ombudsman doesn’t dole out punishment, city leaders have the power to give that office investigatory authority. The group points to decisions made last year by the state’s Public Employee Relations Commission regarding police oversight in Seattle.

The Center for Justice has proposed new oversight rules that would give the ombudsman investigatory power. The concept also would allow the ombudsman to craft and publicly release reports on specific incidents along with recommendations for avoiding future misconduct. Names of complainants and officers would be withheld from reports.

Under current rules the ombudsman does not release details about specific cases.

Center for Justice Executive Director Breean Beggs said that without releasing details on specific incidents, it’s difficult for leaders to know how to improve policy.

“If the council doesn’t know what needs to change, they can’t exercise their oversight,” Beggs said.

The state commission’s ruling hasn’t changed the position of the Spokane Police Guild. “I believe it’s a change in working conditions that we’d have to negotiate,” said Spokane Police Guild President Ernie Wuthrich.

Verner said Friday she believes the proposal needs a “thorough legal review.” She also said that allowing a more-public release of the ombudsman’s work could result in privacy concerns.

City Attorney Howard Delaney said Thursday that based on his early analysis of the Public Employee Relations Commission’s decisions, the city likely still would need to negotiate with the guild to increase the ombudsman’s powers.

Councilman Jon Snyder said he is interested in the city reviewing the idea, but added he believes that Kirkpatrick has appropriately disciplined officers, some of whom have been fired. “The department has done its part in disciplining officers,” Snyder said. “What I’m frustrated with is juries that won’t convict or flaws in the cases that prosecutors bring.”

Spokane’s rules allow Burns to monitor investigations into alleged police misconduct by reviewing reports and sitting in on detective interviews. If he doesn’t believe police work has been fair, he can ask Kirkpatrick for further review. If the chief disagrees, he can ask that the mayor order the chief to reopen the investigation. Burns earns $99,388 annually.

From Aug. 24 – when Burns started his job – to the end of the year, Burns received 29 complaints, which he forwarded to the police department’s internal affairs division for review. He said he’s sat in on all the interviews conducted related to the cases and has been able to ask his own questions in those sessions.

“I’ve had good cooperation with the police department at this point in time,” Burns said. “I’ve had unrestricted access to all the reports and people that I’ve needed.”

Beggs, at the Center for Justice, said the current system is a “great improvement,” but “it just doesn’t quite get us there.”

Wuthrich, of the Police Guild, said he believes Burns is “moving in the right direction.”

“He’s objective,” Wuthrich said. “He’s remained independent.”

But others say Burns’ position will be a waste until his work becomes more public and his power is strengthened.

“Without independent investigations, the money being spent to fund the ombudsman is extra money being put to what amounts to little more than a public relations ruse,” said Peace and Justice Action League Director Liz Moore.