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

City Council approves new Spokane police contract, oversight law

Three more months of public debate, news conferences and negotiations have led to the Spokane City Council’s approval of a new police oversight law and union contract.

After unanimously rejecting a proposed Spokane Police Guild contract in November, the council approved a five-year labor contract Monday in a 6-1 vote. It also unanimously approved a law governing police officer oversight.

Council members said the deal and new law significantly improve citizen oversight of the Police Department, a dominating issue of city government at least since the 2006 death of Otto Zehm.

“If it’s not a perfect document, it’s damn close,” said City Councilman Steve Salvatori, who was one of the council members who led the charge last year to insert independent oversight into the City Charter.

The council doesn’t have the final say on the contract. That will be up to the membership of the guild.

Many police reform advocates remain skeptical of the new plan and argue that rules appear to place limitations on the ombudsman’s right to investigate alleged misconduct independently from the Police Department’s internal affairs unit. Nearly everyone who testified Monday night opposed the deal.

John Lemus, who works for Skils’kin, the nonprofit group where Zehm worked as a janitor before his 2006 death in police custody, called the agreement a “dishonor” to Zehm.

“This current version makes a mockery of the word ‘independent,’ ” said Dave Plemons, a member of the Peace and Justice Action League of Spokane.

Some council members responded that the new plan is even better than the City Charter alone because it allows the ombudsman to be more active in the internal investigation, the one that affects discipline.

“He actually has a chance on a real-time basis to represent all of us,” Salvatori said.

Salvatori noted that if the department botches the internal investigation, the police ombudsman commission can hire a third party to investigate.

The new contract keeps an annual 2 percent raise for police officers every year from 2012 through 2015. It adds 2016 with no raise in pay but an increase instead in “deferred compensation.” Deferred compensation is similar to 401(k) retirement plans common in the private sector. Police, like many city employees, receive pensions and deferred compensation, but they don’t get Social Security. The city estimates the contract will increase the city’s cost by 2.8 percent a year, the same amount as the November proposal.

The new deal explicitly gives the ombudsman the right to conduct an independent investigation if the Police Department declined to open an investigation and the Spokane Police Ombudsman Commission disagreed with that decision. The commission also could contract with an investigator to continue investigating a case that the commission felt was not thoroughly investigated by the department. The ombudsman could also conduct interviews related to complaints filed with his office before the department starts an investigation.

Councilman Mike Fagan cast the lone vote against the contract. He said last week that he believed the deal was too lucrative. Mayor David Condon and Police Guild leaders agreed to the new contract early this month.