The Spokane mayor’s office and Police Guild last week reached a tentative agreement on a new labor contract that changes the way the police ombudsman provides oversight of officer misconduct, but may not go as far as establishing the independence called for by voters in February.
At the same time, the Spokane City Council is scheduled to take up a new ordinance to create an independent ombudsman with capability to launch investigations under the authority of a new five-member citizen Ombudsman Commission.
The ordinance is being pushed by Councilman Steve Salvatori to implement a city charter amendment that won 69 percent voter approval in February. The amendment calls for independent investigation by the ombudsman.
City Council President Ben Stuckart said Friday that he wants to postpone a vote on the ordinance until the tentative agreement with the Police Guild gets a public airing.
Police Guild members have yet to approve the new contract; if they do, it will be made public, Stuckart said.
After that, Stuckart said he wants to schedule at least three public forums to take public input, including comment from the city’s Use of Force Commission.
The commission in August made 26 recommendations, including giving independent investigative authority to the ombudsman.
Stuckart declined to say whether the tentative agreement provides for an independent ombudsman.
But proponents of an independent ombudsman said they fear the tentative agreement will not go far enough in satisfying the city charter requirement.
Spokane attorney Breean Beggs said there is concern that adopting the ordinance Monday would cause Police Guild members to vote no on the contract agreement.
He said he has been told the tentative agreement makes a few changes in the current ombudsman’s authority but does not establish the ability to independently investigate wrongdoing.
The ombudsman was created by the City Council in 2008 but has only been able to look over the shoulders of the department’s internal affairs office.
The ombudsman can receive complaints but has to forward them to internal affairs for investigation. The ombudsman can recommend additional investigation in a case, but that recommendation can be overruled by the internal affairs investigator, the chief or the mayor.
Beggs said it’s his understanding that the tentative agreement would allow a new Ombudsman Commission to rule on the recommendation for additional investigation.
Salvatori’s proposed ordinance also would give authority over independent investigations to a citizen Ombudsman Commission. An exception is made for criminal investigations, which would be solely handled by internal affairs.
The ombudsman also would not be involved in discipline under the proposed ordinance.
Beggs said independent investigative authority for the ombudsman would be legal, even if it is not in the contract, if the ombudsman has no role in discipline. The ombudsman would actually have a stronger hand in oversight if he or she were removed from the disciplinary process, he said, adding that such responsibility should remain with internal affairs, the chief and mayor.
The job of the ombudsman, he said, “is to open a window to the public” about cases of misconduct and the department’s internal handling of them. That’s where significant accountability lies, not necessarily with discipline, he said.
Salvatori said adopting the ordinance Monday would not preclude making changes after a contract is approved.
He said the public, through the ballot, has been demanding independent oversight of police.
“Democracy does not go on hold because there is not a contract,” he said.
Salvatori characterized the agreement as a “thoughtful product” but said he and other council members are required to keep the terms confidential until the tentative agreement is approved by the Police Guild.
He said he believes the negotiations over the ombudsman’s role should have been done publicly with participation by the guild.
Guild President John Gately said the agreement has not yet been discussed by guild members at a meeting, and he declined to comment further.
For the past 21 months, the guild has been working under its old contract, which expired at the end of 2011.
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