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Shawn Vestal: Ombudsman rule imperfect but promising

Spokane’s new path on police oversight has been greeted by some reform proponents as a horror, a travesty, a failure. Even supporters have been lukewarm about it: Best we can do. Give it a chance.

In truth, though, it is a triumph. Not because it purely honors Proposition 1 and the city charter. It doesn’t. Not because it provides perfectly unfettered independence to the ombudsman. It doesn’t. Not because it is ideal. It’s not.

It is a triumph of a lesser and more realistic sort: a hard-won compromise in an arena where compromise has not seemed remotely possible. Think back a few years – back to when the ombudsman’s office was being defanged by a Spokane Police Guild challenge, for example – and consider what the city has now. A citizens commission and ombudsman empowered to oversee and participate in internal affairs investigations; to go out on their own, if they judge the IA to be insufficient; to open their own probe, if the IA investigators decide not to investigate a complaint; to order a third-party investigation at the end of the process, if they find it faulty; and to publish their findings about all of it.

The process does remain intertwined with the IA process, but that has an upside: it can be used for disciplinary action. And, finally, crucially, if the guild OKs the contract, it will be agreeing to a level of oversight that is unprecedented for that body.

Opponents of this agreement say it fails to carry out the wish of the citizens, as passed in Proposition 1, that the ombudsman have “independent investigative authority.” I have, over the years, been much more with these voices than against them. But I cannot think of any similar example – with the exception perhaps of the street levy – where the political process in this town produced a sausage that so nearly resembles the one the people ordered.

A triumph. The ombudsman himself sees it that way.

“In some respects, I’m not sure it doesn’t exceed my wildest expectations,” said Tim Burns. “I’m very optimistic. I would agree with (Councilman) Steve Salvatori – I do think this is going to make Spokane one of the stronger oversight cities regionally and potentially even nationally.”

We voted for independent investigative authority for the ombudsman’s office. For most people, this meant, I believe, an ombudsman who was totally free of the Police Department’s internal affairs investigations. What the mayor, City Council and guild have come up with is not quite that.

But it’s pretty damn close, against pretty steep odds. And as the proposals of the past few months improved – in large part because the City Council pushed back hard against the mayor and guild’s initial proposals – it became harder and harder to see why pretty damn close wasn’t pretty good, after all.

We need police oversight in this town. Gotta have it. We need a system in which the cops are no longer the only ones investigating the cops. This does that. I suspect it will seem better and better over time, and I think it fits into an overall pattern of serious, difficult reform efforts that are underway in this community.

Council President Ben Stuckart, who successfully pushed back against the mayor’s first bite at the apple and helped advance the proposal significantly, has taken heat, along with other council liberals, from the most passionate proponents of reform.

But he says he believes this is not only a good plan in the abstract, but one that satisfies Proposition 1 and the city charter’s call for independence. He also sees it as a victory of the legislative process and the separation of powers, and the civics nerd in me agrees.

“This isn’t a matter of me saying, ‘This is as good as we can get,’ ” Stuckart said. “This is me saying, ‘This is good for the citizens.’

“This should’ve been a time to take a victory lap,” he said. “Together, the citizens and the council forced the mayor to get it done, and it’s going to be a really good thing for the community.”

This deal does not establish an absolutely independent ombudsman. But it revolutionizes citizen oversight of the police department in Spokane. In this world, with these players, under this system, who would have predicted a better outcome?

I’m like Burns. I’m not sure it doesn’t exceed my wildest expectations.

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

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