Three finalists for Spokane’s police ombudsman will be in town this week for community interviews, signaling an end in sight for a hiring process many say has left the position vacant for too long.
Since the start of the year, the Spokane Police Department has received 71 complaints and classified more than half as inquiries, meaning further investigation is not warranted, according to data provided by the department’s Office of Professional Accountability. They’ve also completed 21 Internal Affairs investigations and had three officer-involved shootings, one fatal.
But for the first time since 2009, there’s no independent civilian to review those decisions. Spokane’s police ombudsman post has been empty since Tim Burns left the city in January. That vacancy and turmoil in the police ombudsman commission have left the police ombudsman office virtually unstaffed, forcing the commission to pay an attorney to take minutes at their meetings.
“It’s really outrageous to now have gone eight months … without anyone in that ombudsman position. It’s unconscionable to have allowed that to happen,” said Liz Moore, executive director of the Peace and Justice Action League of Spokane.
Ombudsman commissioners say the long wait is due to a failure by the city to prioritize hiring an interim police ombudsman. City officials involved in the decision, meanwhile, say a lack of qualified applicants and turmoil on the commission itself have contributed to the delay.
Members of the search committee for police ombudsman were appointed in January and tasked with recommending three names for police ombudsman. They forwarded those names to the ombudsman commission in mid-July.
At the time, the ombudsman commission was inoperative after a city investigation into a complaint concluded three commissioners had created a hostile work environment for a former ombudsman assistant. Two commissioners, Kevin Berkompas and Adrian Dominguez, resigned under fire in June, while chairwoman Rachel Dolezal, the controversial former president of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP, was removed by the City Council.
That left the commission without a quorum. Two new members have since been appointed: AJ VanderPol, a Gonzaga law student, and Ladd Smith, a teacher at Hutton Elementary. The new commission began meeting again in early August and is preparing to interview finalists on Thursday following a day of community meetings.
City Attorney Nancy Isserlis chaired the ombudsman selection committee, which included former ombudsman commissioner Dominguez representing the City Council, Spokane police Capt. Brad Arleth representing the Lieutenants and Captains Association, and Sgt. John Griffiths representing the Spokane Police Guild.
A fifth member, Jan Dobbs, the chief operating officer of Frontier Behavioral Health, was selected by the other four in a process that took more than a month.
The committee did not forward any names for an interim ombudsman to the commission, even after the City Council unanimously passed a resolution asking them to do so on May 11. A total of 16 people applied for the interim ombudsman position; seven of them also asked to be considered for the regular ombudsman opening.
Dominguez made a motion to name two candidates for interim ombudsman at the search committee’s May 20 meeting but wasn’t able to get a second.
“They didn’t meet the qualifications in my opinion or I would have seconded it,” Isserlis said. She said she could not recall who the candidates were. Dominguez also did not recall their names.
Isserlis said the committee focused on getting a permanent ombudsman as soon as possible and worked quickly once they received a job description from the ombudsman commission. They vetted 38 candidates and conducted 14 interviews by computer and six in-person interviews before choosing finalists. Now that finalists have been named, the committee’s work is done, she said.
Ombudsman commission chairwoman Deb Conklin said she’s been frustrated by a lack of transparency in the hiring process. She said she doubted that none of the interim applicants were qualified, but couldn’t be sure because the selection committee wouldn’t share those names with ombudsman commissioners.
The search committee discussed potential candidates for ombudsman almost exclusively in executive sessions, according to their meeting minutes, which state law allows but does not require.
Conklin said there was “some irony involved” in having a “secretive” hiring process for a position focused on transparency.
Isserlis said discussions were held in executive session to protect the privacy of applicants, most of whom had other jobs.
Conklin and ombudsman commissioner Scott Richter said they’ve also felt unsupported by the city while working to coordinate community forums so people can meet the ombudsman candidates.
The all-volunteer commission has been without staff support since the former ombudsman assistant resigned in May. The assistant had raised concerns about the work ombudsman commissioners asked her to do.
As a result, the city is paying the commission’s attorney, Breean Beggs, to handle some administrative tasks like taking notes at meetings and coordinating interviews. Beggs is paid $195 per hour, according to his contract with the city.
“It’s certainly not ideal and not something that was envisioned,” city spokesman Brian Coddington said.
He said a unique set of circumstances including the investigation into ombudsman commissioners over the summer have left the ombudsman post vacant for longer than anybody anticipated was likely.
The city has no plans to hire administrative support for the ombudsman commission until an ombudsman is hired, he said.
Ombudsman commissioners will interview the three finalists at 7 p.m. Thursday in a public meeting at City Hall. They plan to discuss candidates and take community input at their regular meeting at 5:30 p.m. Sept. 1 before making a decision at a meeting in mid-September.
One of the three ombudsman finalists, Raheel Humayun, is a police misconduct investigator in British Columbia and would require a work visa to relocate to Spokane. Commissioners fear that process could take months, leaving the city without oversight even longer.
Isserlis said commissioners could select one of the other finalists to fill in as interim ombudsman if their final pick isn’t available to begin work right away. She said she’d also consider a request for the selection committee to meet again if that scenario unfolds.
City Councilman Jon Snyder, who chairs the council’s Public Safety Committee, said the drawn-out process shows a need to re-examine the succession process for a police ombudsman. He said there should always be a list of qualified candidates for interim ombudsman who can step in if the ombudsman leaves, gets sick or needs help with the office’s workload.
“It’s pretty much one of the only positions at the city with no succession plan,” he said.
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter.