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

Spokane City Council pares down police oversight ordinance

Spokane City Council members voted unanimously Monday to create a new citizen Police Ombudsman Commission to oversee future investigations of officer misconduct and police performance.

Council members backed away from a proposal to empower the existing police ombudsman to conduct independent investigations.

An announcement last week that the mayor’s office has reached a tentative labor agreement with the Spokane Police Guild caused council members to back away from stronger ombudsman language – at least for the time being.

Council members said they do not want to discourage Police Guild members from approving the contract, and they also did not want to give the Police Guild an avenue for filing an unfair labor practice complaint over the ombudsman issue.

The council had been poised to adopt stronger language to fully implement independent investigative power, which was approved by 69 percent of city voters in a City Charter amendment last February.

Council members said they want to have a public dialogue and discussion over the tentative contract agreement prior to moving ahead with the language for independent investigative powers.

That public discussion will involve at least three forums in November through early December, Council President Ben Stuckart said.

He described the tentative agreement reached with the guild as a “huge win” and an important step in moving toward an independent ombudsman.

Police have been working under an old contract that expired at the end of 2011.

A vote to pare down the ordinance to include only creation of an ombudsman commission passed 6-1, with Councilman Mike Allen voting no.

“We need to come up with a solution, plain and simple,” he said.

He warned that postponing the full ordinance in lieu of contract approval risks losing the battle for an independent ombudsman.

“I want to do what the citizens have asked us to do,” Allen said.

The ombudsman was created by the City Council in 2008 but has limited power.

The ombudsman can receive complaints but has to forward them to the police department’s internal affairs office for investigation. The ombudsman can recommend additional investigation in a case, but that recommendation can be overruled by internal affairs, the chief or the mayor.

Several people who testified urged the council to adopt the full ordinance.

“It’s got to be for real this time,” said Liz Moore, director of the Peace and Justice Action League of Spokane.

Downtown business owner John Waite said, “We need independent investigations and oversight.”

Breann Beggs, community affairs attorney, said the proposed contract is silent on the question of independent ombudsman investigations, but that won’t prevent the City Council from giving the ombudsman that power.

He said the Washington Public Employment Relations Commission has previously ruled that an ombudsman’s independent power is not a bargaining issue if the ombudsman stays out of the disciplinary process that is part of internal affairs investigations.