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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Spokane mayor, chief rally behind ombudsman proposal

Mayor David Condon and police Chief Frank Straub continued their pitch Wednesday for an independent oversight plan they say would make Spokane a regional model in law enforcement transparency.

But the head of the labor union representing Spokane police officers declined to endorse the plan, nor would he offer any assurances that it wouldn’t be the target of a legal challenge if approved by the City Council.

“We got this a little bit ago,” said Spokane Police Guild President John Gately, referring to the draft ordinance. “We’ll work through it with the mayor and continue the discussion.”

The joint appearance Wednesday was intended by Condon to help build public support for an independent oversight plan that falls short of what voters demanded in February but still provides for some outside investigation into allegations of officer misconduct. Condon and Straub contended it satisfies the spirit of what voters want while still complying with state labor laws on officer discipline.

But City Council members are leery.

They unanimously rejected a tentative labor contract with the Police Guild last month that failed to include independent oversight, and Condon is hoping the proposed ordinance will ease their concerns.

Condon and Straub now are taking their case directly to the public and sought Wednesday to explain how the proposal, subject to City Council approval, fulfilled the demands of the voters in a charter amendment passed overwhelmingly. Condon and Straub said the ordinance would go as far as possible under state law to meet that goal.

The city created a police ombudsman in 2008 after a series of scandals that raised questions over how thoroughly officers were investigating themselves. But a legal challenge by the police union limited the authority of the ombudsman, who is prohibited from initiating or conducting his own investigations into potential misconduct.

Condon signaled Wednesday that he is committed to the new plan, even if it’s challenged in court.

“We will vigorously defend this ordinance if we need to,” Condon said.

Critics have said the proposed law shifts investigative authority outside the office of the ombudsman by authorizing a third-party probe once an internal affairs file is closed. Straub said Wednesday this so-called “relief valve” proposed by Condon avoids redundancy, because the police ombudsman will have already participated without restriction in the internal affairs process, calling for further questioning of a person or ordering additional interviews.

“The ombudsman and the police sergeant assigned to internal affairs literally sit right next to each other, from the beginning of that investigation until the end of that investigation,” Straub said. A request from the civilian oversight panel to look closer at a particular case would signal a lack of confidence in both the police chief and the ombudsman, he said, making third-party involvement a necessity.

That third party would be unable to discipline officers under the proposed law, nor would it be able to recommend whether an officer should be disciplined. Straub said that’s due to labor laws that would need to be revised to give the ombudsman disciplinary power.

Even if the council passes the ordinance, the Police Guild could object by saying the city trampled on its bargaining rights. Gately said his group would not give up those rights and did not say whether the union had signed off on the proposed law, though he dismissed any suggestion that the guild had gummed up negotiations.

“I don’t know how anybody could say we’ve been holding up the process,” he said.

Rick Eichstaedt, executive director of the Center for Justice that has been working with the city and police in drafting an ombudsman ordinance, said the lack of an endorsement from the union is a “giant concern.”

“There needs to be a solid commitment by the guild,” Eichstaedt said. He’s concerned Condon’s strategy of approving a contract at the same time as an ordinance could lead to one without the other, he said, should the union get the oversight law thrown out.

The mayor will be taking the case for his proposed ordinance directly to citizens at a series of scheduled forums during the next two weeks. The first opportunity will be at a telephone town hall today at 6 p.m. Those interested may call (888) 409-5380 to participate.

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