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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
News >  Spokane

Bland recipe for oversight of police may be all we get

Here’s where we stand, in terms of policing the police: One of the most hopeful signs about the latest proposal for true independent oversight is that it’s all bark and no bite.

That’s right. All bark and no bite – that’s the selling point.

The Police Guild’s authority in this matter is so preposterously absolute that the only seeming path now open for forcing accountability on these officers is to promise this: It will have absolutely no bearing on discipline.

Again: This is what’s good about it.

A decade of trying to shine a light of accountability on this police department has foundered again and again on the shoals of Washington’s collective-bargaining law. The Police Guild – which keeps insisting it doesn’t oppose oversight, even as it files grievances against every single attempt at oversight – wins again and again. There are a lot of legal reasons for this, but it’s primarily because the guild has argued successfully that discipline is a “working condition” and that the law requires that working conditions be negotiated.

When it comes to policing the police, the police have the final say. Can we possibly accept this? A group of committed community activists, led by the Center for Justice and the Peace and Justice Action League of Spokane, has continued to insist that we cannot.

Last week, the groups proposed a new ordinance to strengthen the city’s ombudsman program, complete with the “bark, don’t bite” provision. The proposal would establish independent investigations of complaints about officers, a citizens advisory board, an improved selection process for the ombudsman, and other measures. It comes as the city is negotiating a new contract with the guild, which makes it the perfect time to pursue this.

Mayor David Condon has made cleaning up the police problem his chief priority, and he has been stellar in this regard: settling the Zehm case, canning the attorneys who devised the city’s repugnant legal strategy and bringing in a new chief.

It has been a little harder to gauge his determination to this piece of the puzzle. Earlier this year, he decided not to renew Ombudsman Tim Burns’ contract, and though there’s been a scramble to keep Burns around, questions cloud the whole enterprise. And at last week’s news conference on this new proposal, Condon expressed a kind of vague support, but he also keeps indicating that perhaps there are other models of oversight that need to be considered.

The city has spent 10 years already considering it. It feels well-considered. An ombudsman with real power – the power to investigate, the power to produce public reports, the power to call the police to account, even if it falls short of specifying disciplinary action – is an excellent model on which a vast amount of community effort has been spent. Does this wheel need reinvention? Or does it need, instead, a vigorous push – exactly what we know Condon can summon when he wants to?

The history of police oversight in Spokane is a stuttering series of false starts – community efforts undone at every step by the guild.

Twenty years ago, the City Council created a Citizens Review Panel. The guild filed an unfair labor practice complaint and won, on the grounds that the panel was granted involvement in disciplinary matters. Under the Public Employee Collective Bargaining law, discipline is a mandatory subject for collective bargaining. This has turned out to be the get-out-of-oversight-free card for the guild. The review panel was disbanded and replaced with a review commission that did not have the power to recommend disciplinary action.

In 2007, a consultant recommended the city abandon the review panel and hire an ombudsman, overseen by a citizens advisory board. A year later, Mayor Mary Verner’s administration signed a contract that set in place a pale, toothless version of that plan. It allowed the guild to help pick its watchdog. It prevented the ombudsman from conducting independent investigations, limiting the office to simple reviews of internal affairs investigations. Also – and this is huge – the terms of the agreement were added as an ongoing article in the guild contract, solidifying the “bargainability” of all such issues into the future.

When citizens showed up to testify on the ordinance before the City Council, their views were close to moot – the contract was in place, and City Council members could only vote yea or nay. They voted yea.

In 2010, urged on by PJALS and the Center for Justice, the City Council voted to allow the ombudsman the power to conduct independent investigations of police misconduct, and to produce public reports. It specifically excluded disciplinary actions.

The guild filed a grievance, arguing that it had the right to bargain the change, given that the 2008 contract included the whole ombudsman program. A ridiculous legal tangle ensued – in which the letter of the law utterly obscured any spirit of any law – and the City Council was forced to repeal the ordinance.

So here we are. The proposed ordinance may not be perfect. There will certainly be debate over terms and details. The public can weigh in. The City Council could take it up, debate it, vote on it. The mayor could drag it, or something like it, into negotiations and give it his best shot.

And we will wait to see whether this time – bark, bite or whatever – the Police Guild will have the final word once again.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.
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