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

More police officer oversight sought

Center: Ombudsman should have independent investigative power

Advocates of greater police accountability are again pushing to give Spokane’s police ombudsman independent investigative authority.

The Center for Justice presented a proposed ordinance during a news conference Thursday, noting that the time is right to push for the expanded authority because the city’s labor contract with the Spokane Police Guild has expired and a new one is being negotiated.

“We have an opportunity now with that contract having expired to at least level the playing field and allow the city to move forward and institute the reform that’s presented in the resolution,” said Tim Connor, spokesman for the Center for Justice.

The city created an ombudsman position in 2009 to monitor investigations of officer misconduct, hiring Tim Burns, a former California police officer. The City Council granted independent investigative authority to Burns’ office in 2010, but it was taken away in 2011 after an arbitrator ruled in favor of the police union that it was a contract issue and should have been negotiated.

The proposed ordinance unveiled Thursday would allow the ombudsman to investigate police complaints independently. The proposal also would install a citizen commission over the ombudsman.

“When we put this ordinance together – in this current draft, we kept in mind to make sure the Office of the Police Ombudsman as designed would not impact daily police duties, does not affect their pay and not involved with discipline at all,” said Spokane attorney Breann Beggs, who helped draft the proposal. “We want to make it clear that in addition to monitoring, they would do independent investigations as they see fit.”

The ordinance creates a “firewall” between the ombudsman’s role to review police activities and the city administration’s to make disciplinary decisions that affect officers.

An ombudsman’s contract would also be extended from three to five years.

Burns’ contract with the city was recently extended through Aug. 2 after City Council members criticized Mayor David Condon’s initial plan to go without an ombudsman as the city explores a range of options for police oversight in the future.

Condon said the commission exploring oversight models has asked for more time before releasing their recommendations. Keeping Burns on the job is intended to be a way to use his expertise if there’s a transition to a new model.

“Does that mean he’s contracted with a different organization? Perhaps,” Condon said. “I think that it’s key that we have that flexibility in Tim’s contract so as citizens want something different, then we, the city, can execute something different. We can change his contract.”

Burns is cautiously optimistic that the Police Guild will support the ordinance, but he is impartial to either decision.

“I think it would be important for the Police Guild, at least in the negotiations process, if it requires that they have a say in how this moves forward because it impacts them – because it is they who they are talking about providing oversight for,” Burns said. “Assuming some of these recommendations occur, clearly the office is going to change, and if I’m the man that has the ability to change with that recommendation, maybe I will be that person. If I don’t have that in my skill set, then I shouldn’t be the guy, quite honestly.”