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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: Spokane police oversight will only happen with pressure from you

OK, just for the record.

All seven members of the Spokane City Council have supported, in principle, the need for independent, investigatory oversight of the Police Department, and opposed any agreement with the Spokane Police Guild that will preclude that.

All seven. Council President Ben Stuckart, and council members Mike Allen, Mike Fagan, Nancy McLaughlin, Steve Salvatori, Jon Snyder and Amber Waldref.

We must not forget this, nor can we allow them to forget this, now that there is a very strong whiff in the air of the half-measure, of capitulation, of acquiescence.

There is a very strong whiff in the air of “better than nothing.”

If the auguries prove correct, only these seven will stand between the citizens of Spokane and better than nothing. They will face an enormous amount of pressure. They will be forced to consider dire consequences – real ones – if they do not go along with better than nothing. Better than nothing will be offered as an alternative to the chokehold that the Guild has on the city in terms of legal options and precedent. These seven could very easily be left with no truly good choices. They could be forced into a place where principle and practicality do not intersect.

The public must remind and keep reminding these seven – relentlessly – what they voted for in February and what now is enshrined in the City Charter.

Someone besides the cops must investigate the cops.

Perhaps none of this will come to pass. Perhaps the tentative agreement between the mayor and the Guild actually will satisfy the mandates of Proposition 1 and the City Charter. Or perhaps there is some long-game strategy here, in which the contract omits independent investigations but the council is able to establish it outside the contract.

Maybe everything will work out just fine. Maybe the clear, unambiguous will of the citizens will be done.

But for a lot of hints to the contrary, consider what happened Monday. The council was to vote on a proposal to implement Prop 1. This proposal included an important caveat: If the ordinance mucked up contract negotiations in any way, that portion of it would be held in abeyance.

At the last minute, the council was subjected to a full-court press, from the chief of police and others, begging them not to pass the part of the ordinance that would have given the ombudsman’s office full investigative power. They were assured, council members said, that the tentative contract agreement would have some simply wonderful elements in it. They were also assured that if they passed it, the Guild would immediately file an unfair labor practices complaint and reject the tentative agreement.

The council demurred, voting to establish an oversight commission but not to give the ombudsman investigative power. Stuckart outlined a positive-sounding scenario: The council will hold public hearings on the proposed contract in November, before voting on it. If it falls short of the public’s wishes, he said, the council could reject it then. Bringing this out into the light will be best in the long run.

But what do the shadowy events of Monday night foreshadow? A big victory for public oversight? Or an onrushing train full of better than nothing?

To recap: The City Council was going to create the independent oversight that 70 percent of voters asked for eight months ago. The Guild threatened to file a grievance. The City Council backed off.

They may have done so wisely. But it is now more important than ever that the citizens of Spokane do not forget what these seven people who represent us have pledged to do. Because it is very, very likely that these seven – all hard-working and honorable folks, all acting in good faith – will soon be faced with very, very difficult decisions regarding the Police Department and citizen oversight.

It is likely that we will soon be discussing proposals that sound like half-measures and capitulations – measures that sound like “progress.” It is likely that they will be considering a proposed contract with the Guild that does not include anything about independent oversight, at least according to people who say they have reviewed the agreement. It is likely that we will soon be discussing different notions of what constitutes “independent oversight,” and alternative approaches to public accountability.

No one will say it, but there it will be: Better than nothing.

It’s a hard thing we’re trying to do here, to cram accountability onto a group of public employees that has resisted it with everything they’ve got. Their resistance only makes it more urgent: Someone besides the cops must investigate the cops.

To get there, the public has to become as obstinate, as unyielding, as determined as the Spokane Police Guild. It must become just as deaf to the entreaties of compromise and practicality – as singular and blindly unreasonable – as the Spokane Police Guild.

Maybe then we can get what we voted for.

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

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