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Shawn Vestal: Police shouldn’t get say in their own oversight

Shawn Vestal
Shawn Vestal

When the committee charged with picking the top candidates to be Spokane’s next ombudsman made a decision, they formalized it through a standard bit of Robert’s Rules of Order.

A representative of the police lieutenants and captains union made the motion to approve the finalists.

A representative of the officers’ union seconded it.

It’s a funny kind of independence we’re cooking up, as the city’s 19-month-old law establishing our system of police oversight gets its first full run. Though it would be premature to proclaim too much about the particular finalists for the job, the process has revealed cracks and flaws that critics predicted – it seems to be burying the principles of independence and civilian oversight under a bureaucratic weight of insiderism and the status quo.

Two of the four people who chose the finalists are cops. One of them is the city attorney. One works with police in a training capacity. Two of the three finalists they chose are career cops. The selection committee met entirely in secret, and so it’s impossible for the public – and the committee that will make the final decision – to know much about how and why the choices were made.

Among the critics is Debra Conklin, a pastor and community activist who is the head of the citizens commission that oversees the ombudsman’s office and that will hire one of the finalists.

“The whole process has been totally frustrating,” said Conklin. “The search committee went into executive session every time they met. They did nothing in public.”

These may be excellent finalists. One of them may eventually make an excellent ombudsman. We should all hope so. And let’s presume that the members of the selection committee – City Attorney Nancy Isserlis, Brad Arleth of the Spokane Lieutenant and Captains Association, John Griffin of the Spokane Police Guild, and Jan Dobbs of Frontier Behavioral health – performed honorably. (A fifth member, Adrian Dominguez, who was also a member of the ombudsman committee, resigned late in the process.)

But the problems are baked into the process, not the people. The absence of public information, plus the associations of those making the decisions, provide fertile soil for the kinds of doubts the enterprise was created to eliminate.

This is not an abstract complaint. Conklin and others have raised questions about a candidate who applied for the job and apparently didn’t get a glance: Andrea Brenneke, a Seattle attorney with extensive experience in civil rights, restorative justice and other police accountability issues.

To those who worry that the process is weighted toward the police and against civilian reformers, the omission of Brenneke is glaring. The selection committee’s minutes show she was not among the top 11 candidates the panel first began considering in May. Instead, the committee eventually selected Allen Huggins, a retired California police officer; Robert Breeden, a retired Florida police officer; and Raheel Humayun, an investigator with the British Columbia Office of the Ombudsperson.

“So we have two former cops and a person with work-visa issues (as finalists) when we also had an incredibly qualified person in Seattle who asked for the job,” Conklin said.

Isserlis defended the selection committee’s work, noting that Dominguez was a member of the panel most of the way and could presumably have informed the ombudsman committee of deliberation. She also said she was in steady contact with the latter board’s attorney, Breann Beggs.

She said the selection committee followed state public records law, the three finalists were chosen by a unanimous vote, and the public has had a lot of chances to weigh in with the three finalists. The selection committee’s deliberations also fell in the middle of an implosion on the ombudsman commission – the Rachel Dolezal revelations erupted at about the same time as a city investigation into complaints about two other former board members, including Dominguez.

“We did the best we could with the tools we had,” Isserlis said.

Let’s revisit, for a moment, the text of Proposition 1, which 70 percent of voters approved in 2013: It called for an ombudsman to “independently investigate complaints of police misconduct.” In the wake of that – and against a constant gale of opposition from the Spokane Police Guild – the city erected the ombudsman commission as a compromise, and one that many viewed as compromised. It created a system of review and investigation by the ombudsman that is woven into the department’s internal-affairs process, and it formed a citizens commission to oversee the office.

Many police critics said the system fell short of the independence called for in Prop 1, but some of us saw it as a decent if imperfect outcome – a piece of legislative sausage.

Maybe that sausage was rancid after all. A chief problem was baked into the compromise: the inclusion of two police union representatives on a five-member commission that will select ombudsman candidates.

This grew out of the unions’ assertions that independent oversight infringed on their legally protected working conditions – the basis on which these organizations had repeatedly and successfully battled oversight proposals over the years.

So here we are. Three finalists have been chosen. A series of public hearings have been held, and people have testified. The ombudsman committee is likely to make a hire in the coming weeks, and with luck, Spokane will have an ombudsman again in the near future to begin tackling the backlog of requests for reviews of police conduct.

We should all hope so. And while we’re at it, we should treat this like a rough draft and not the final word, and keep pushing to get the police unions out of the business of picking their own overseer.

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