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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Police ombudsman rules downgraded

By Jonathan Brunt and Meghann M. Cuniff The Spokesman-Review

An arbitrator this week revoked a law that strengthened Spokane’s police ombudsman powers because the city did not consult the Spokane Police Guild before it was approved last year.

The decision by arbitrator Michael H. Beck effectively reverses rules that strengthened the ability of police Ombudsman Tim Burns to investigate alleged officer misconduct independently of police. The opinion was dated Monday; the city received it Tuesday.

The power to examine police wrongdoing separate from the police department’s own investigators is a change in working conditions that must be negotiated with the guild, Beck ruled.

Guild President Ernie Wuthrich said his members objected to the revised rules because they believe allowing Burns to conduct his own investigation could jeopardize his ability to remain objective when analyzing internal affairs probes.

“We’re not trying to hinder the office of the ombudsman at all,” Wuthrich said. “We are actually pleased with the way Tim Burns is doing his job.”

The original law, passed in 2008, allowed the ombudsman to sit in on police investigations into officer misconduct and label whether those investigations were thorough, timely and fair. He can order additional information and interviews from internal affairs officers. If the chief doesn’t oblige, he can appeal to the mayor, who has the final say. He also is allowed to make broad policy recommendations.

Last year, the City Council unanimously voted to give Burns power to conduct his own investigations, including interviewing witnesses, and make those reports public.

Burns did not return phone messages seeking comment late Tuesday afternoon.

City leaders said they won’t give up on creating a stronger police oversight program. Some suggest lobbying the state Legislature to change to state law to allow police oversight without bargaining. But the most likely course appears to be through guild contract negotiations.

“What it means is we need to sit down with the guild and negotiate the changes,” City Administrator Ted Danek said. “I think we’re going to get to work with the guild to see if we can get that accomplished.”

Spokane lawyer Breean Beggs said the original ombudsman ordinance does not prohibit Burns from talking to witnesses or from issuing public reports.

“One reason people wanted new language was to make it easier and to really push for him to do it,” Beggs said. “It just gave him direction to use his full powers that were under the old ordinance.”

Still, Beggs said, the arbitrator’s ruling was “disappointing.”

“Almost everybody agrees ombudsman reports have been an improvement,” he said. “But obviously the city has a contract with the union and they get to work out how they resolve their differences. And we as citizens don’t get much input in that.”

City officials, including Mayor Mary Verner, argued before the City Council unanimously approved the new rules in 2010 that having to bargain for stronger ombudsman powers would make it more difficult to win salary or benefit concessions that the city wants to avoid layoffs. City officials are planning to cut about $7 million to balance the 2012 budget. The guild’s contract expires at the end of the year.

City Councilman Bob Apple said the guild shouldn’t expect council approval for a labor contract that doesn’t include the stronger oversight rules or has significant pay raises.

“They have to deal with the fact that they’re upper crust in Spokane,” Apple said. Officers have a “pretty substantial salary in an area where we have a poverty situation.”

Liz Moore, director of the Peace and Justice Action League, which advocated for the revised rules, said talking to witnesses should be a crucial part of the ombudsman’s job.

“To say that (guild members) like it but that there should be no way for him to talk to witnesses or make a public report is just to say they like to keep the curtains drawn,” Moore said.

Moore said no changes were made regarding officer discipline because of concerns for union rights.

“To see such minor changes be reversed is really disappointing,” Moore said.

But Beck, the arbitrator, said allowing the ombudsman to interview witnesses and mandating public reports allows him to “put substantial pressure on the chief of police and/or the mayor” regarding disciplinary decisions.

The city’s original police ombudsman rules were negotiated with the guild. They followed public outcry over high-profile incidents, including the death of Otto Zehm, a Spokane janitor who was mentally ill and died in police custody in 2006.

Critics argued that the public could not gain faith in its police department unless reports about specific incidents were made public and Burns was given power to conduct his investigations. After a year in the job, Burns publicly agreed with activists who lobbied in favor of a new ordinance that gave him investigatory powers and required him to write reports about each misconduct case.

City leaders argued that the change was not a change in working conditions because Burns has no disciplinary authority. Guild leaders disagreed, saying his work likely would lead to discipline and filed an Unfair Labor Practice complaint with the state Public Employment Relations Commission and a contract grievance. This week’s decision is a result of the contract grievance.

Councilman Jon Snyder said the first year under the new rules has proven that a stronger ombudsman creates more accountability without anti-police hysteria and gives the public important insight into the significant obstacles officers face.

“My hope is that the Police Guild will look at the last year under the new ordinance and reassess how they feel it impacts them,” Snyder said. “This is just a necessary step in the road to getting what I think will be Washington state’s first viable and effective police ombudsman for a major city.”

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