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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Spokane council postpones vote on police ombudsman

The long debate over the power of Spokane’s new police ombudsman will last at least one more week.

Early Tuesday morning, the Spokane City Council voted 6-1 to delay a decision on a plan giving Ombudsman Tim Burns the power to conduct independent investigations into police misconduct.

Burns currently has the power only to monitor investigations conducted by the police department’s Internal Affairs division. The council has been debating on and off for nearly a year whether that power should expand.

Granting Burns at least some new powers has wide support among the council, but a proposed change that was considered Monday is leading one city councilman to say he may vote against the rules.

“They gutted it,” said Councilman Bob Apple.

As of last week, the proposal with the most support would have granted Burns the power to force the police department’s Internal Affairs division to open investigations. The most recent draft does not include that power – though Burns could still investigate independently, even if there’s no police examination.

Apple said only letting police administrators decide if an Internal Affairs investigation is opened hampers Burns because he doesn’t have the resources to conduct much independent investigation.

But Councilman Jon Snyder said Apple’s concern is “pure speculation.” He noted that the proposed ombudsman rules that Apple submitted for consideration in May also did not grant Burns the right to open Internal Affairs investigations.

Snyder said the most recent version doesn’t include the power because granting that right could make the rules harder to defend in court or in the Public Employment Relations Commission, which handles disputes between governments and unions.

Spokane Police Guild President Ernie Wuthrich said in a Spokane Public Radio report last week that the union likely would challenge changes to the ombudsman’s powers because the union hasn’t agreed to them.

Snyder said it’s important that rules not give the ombudsman powers that could be interpreted as discipline. Since Internal Affairs investigations can lead to discipline, that power could make it harder to defend.

“The three words in that section are not worth throwing out all the progress we’ve made on the ombudsman,” Snyder said.

After two long hearings on other topics, the City Council opened debate on the ombudsman about 10:45 p.m. Monday. After 26 people testified – all in favor of independent oversight – the council voted 6-1 about 12:45 a.m. Tuesday to delay a vote until next week.

Pastor Eugene Singleton, of St. Matthews Baptist Church, told the council that without investigative authority, it doesn’t make sense to pay for an ombudsman.

“You have a man to do the job. You ought to let him do his job,” Singleton said. “My concern is justice for all.”

A coalition of groups led by the Peace and Justice Action League of Spokane has lobbied the council to enhance the ombudsman’s authority. Some members of the league argued for a delay to give more time to understand changes that were made in the proposal released on Monday. Snyder, the lone vote in favor of making a decision Tuesday morning, said he felt changes were small enough to move ahead without another hearing.

Spokane Mayor Mary Verner said in a brief interview before Monday’s meeting that she still hasn’t decided if she will support a proposal to expand Burns’ powers.

Verner said she would wait to see the final version approved by the council before formulating her opinion. She said she hasn’t talked to Burns about his current stance on the topic.

Last week, Burns said he believes his office should have investigative authority.

“I don’t know how much that (Burns’ stance) reflects a need for a change in the ordinance,” Verner said.

Verner supported creation of an ombudsman when she ran for mayor in 2007. After she was elected, Verner proposed contracting for the service on a part-time basis, arguing that good relations between the guild and the chief would lead a full-time ombudsman to be a “Maytag repairman.”

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