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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: There’s hope for more independent oversight of Spokane police

The bad news regarding police reform in Spokane is that three years after voters demanded “independent investigations” of police misconduct, we’re still debating the meaning of “independent,” as if it is a puzzling and difficult notion.

The good news is that there are signs of a re-energized push for more independence in the city’s ombudsman’s office. Part of this comes from a proposal that may be on its way toward the City Council that would attempt to untangle the ombudsman from the department’s internal affairs process. And part of it comes from the guy who is filling the ombudsman’s job right now, Bart Logue.

Logue is one of two finalists for the permanent job, along with longtime Phoenix police officer Jacquelyn MacConnell. At a community forum this week, he was asked about the state of independence in Spokane’s ombudsman office.

“Can I do all aspects of an investigation?” he asked. “My challenge is the back row of this room right now.”

He was referring to several police officers sitting in the rear of the conference room at the West Central Community Center.

“If they say no (to an interview request), I’m stuck with half the investigation, and I’m not satisfied with that,” he said.

Logue was not cop-bashing. He also said that he believed it was important for people to understand that when he reviews body-camera footage, he frequently sees examples of “picture-perfect police responses.” And he emphasized that the ombudsman does have many tools to review investigations and follow up on complaints.

But it was a blast of cold, fresh air to hear him note the simple truth: the police department’s influence remains too pronounced in the ombudsman process. And though there are reasons for this – notably resistance from the Police Guild officers union – it does not square with the voters’ passage of Proposition 1 in 2013, which attempted to grant the ombudsman authority to “independently investigate” police complaints.

Depending on how you look at this, it is either old news or a remaining battlefront. Following the passage of Prop 1 and a difficult political battle, the city adopted an ombudsman ordinance that stopped short of full independence; the ombudsman’s investigative abilities were largely placed under the umbrella of the department’s internal affairs process.

A lot of people – and I was one of them – felt that the agreement was imperfect but strong overall, and perhaps the best we were going to get. The first ombudsman, Tim Burns, praised the ordinance: “I’m not sure it doesn’t exceed my wildest expectations,” he told me at the time.

Maybe we should have had wilder expectations. Critics have argued persuasively that ordinance compromised the central principle of Prop 1, but as time went on, there was a strong sense that the case was closed.

Now that the city is looking to hire a new ombudsman, the case has been reopened. Logue and MacConnell are in the midst of the interview process, having met with community members in several forums. I don’t know which is the best candidate, and am not trying to make a case on that front. But Logue’s the person in the chair now, the first to report from the front lines of oversight since Burns left in January 2015, and his observations are important whether he gets the job or not.

Since he took the temporary job in February, Logue has sent more than 25 police cases back for further investigation or review before certifying them as “timely, thorough and objective.” He has no complaints about the department’s responses so far. “They have done it every single time,” he said.

But he’s aware that if push comes to shove, he has no ability to compel an officer to grant him an interview.

“I can request but not require an officer to come to an interview,” he said. “As long as they say yes, then it’s no obstacle.”

He said even if the issue didn’t arise much, it’s a crucial shortcoming in the the independence of his office.

“Say they only (refused) once, but did it right 99 times,” Logue said. “Then that’s still one case I don’t get to independently investigate fully.”

Finding a way to compel officer interviews would be a part of “Bart Logue’s ideal world,” he said – along with more investigative resources and an expanded ability to communicate his conclusions to the public. But he also recognizes that Bart Logue’s ideal world might be difficult to achieve. As it stands now, the question of officer interviews, like so much in the ombudsman system, stand subject to Guild approval as a working condition, and the Guild has shown little but resistance along this path.

Might that be changing, just a tiny bit? Logue has sought permission to allow others in his office to help review body-camera footage, a move initially resisted by the Guild. But that changed this week, and “they gave it to me,” Logue said.

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

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