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Friday, July 3, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Police ombudsman, union set to negotiate access to body camera footage

Spokane Police Guild leaders say they need to give permission before the police ombudsman’s assistant can watch footage captured by officer body cameras.

Bart Logue, the interim police ombudsman and a finalist for the permanent job, requested earlier this year that his assistant have digital access to the footage captured by officers’ cameras. Currently, Logue is the only person in the ombdusman’s office with that access.

In an email to then-Law Enforcement Director Jim McDevitt in April, Logue argued that reviewing the footage related to complaints had become too time-consuming for a single person.

“There are days when I watch eight hours of video and do nothing else,” Logue said in an interview this week. “Everything is in real time, and when it comes down to it, we want to be efficient but we want to be thorough.”

Sgt. John Griffin, president of the Spokane Police Guild, said in a letter requesting collective bargaining that extending access to another person in the ombudsman’s office would constitute a change in working conditions.

The most recent contract with officers didn’t permit anyone but the ombudsman to review footage, Griffin wrote in the letter. The portion of the city ordinance extending access to materials such as body camera footage was limited to just the ombudsman, not the office, it also said.

The formal request to bargain was sent in May to Assistant Chief Craig Meidl, now the temporary leader of the department. Logue said a meeting between the ombudsman and the guild had been scheduled for Aug. 1.

Logue and City Councilman Breean Beggs disagree with the guild’s assessment of who is authorized to view footage, but both acknowledged the union had a right to request to bargain.

The ordinance states, “The OPO will have unimpeded access to all complaint and investigative files from OPO Involved Investigations for auditing and reporting purposes.”

Beggs and Logue both said “OPO” obviously stood for “Office of the Police Ombudsman,” meaning anyone who works in the department and has completed a required background check. The ordinance singles out the ombudsman in other places, Beggs said, meaning investigative files were meant to be shared with the entire office.

“That would be the normal interpretation of that,” Beggs said.

“To me, it’s a no-brainer,” Logue said. “But there’s resistance, so we’re working our way through it. They absolutely have the right to demand to bargain.”

Griffin could not be reached for comment. A phone call to the guild’s vice president, Tim Ottmar, also was not returned.

In his letter, Griffin said the guild believes the burden of reviewing body camera footage will subside as Logue and his office clear the backlog of investigations assigned to the ombudsman, following a year of the position being vacant. Griffin, on behalf of the union, called the massive amount of video to review “an anomaly” that would be corrected when the office found a permanent leader.

Logue said the issue goes further than access to video and could affect the efficiency of the city’s civilian oversight of law enforcement moving forward.

“It’s a big deal to me, as I walk around the community and I talk to people and I read the ordinance and the charter,” Logue said. “We’re supposed to be doing independent investigations. How do I get there?”

Beggs said he understood Logue’s concern about what the disagreement could mean about a future relationship between the ombudsman and union.

“That concern is a legitimate concern,” Beggs said. “The guild also has concerns. They’re both doing their due diligence and trying to protect their independence.”

Beggs said he is working on a new draft of the police ombudsman ordinance, after taking input from the civilian commission overseeing Logue’s office, the guild and other groups. The guild’s contract expires at the end of the year, and Beggs said the law firm handling negotiations between the mayor’s office and the union confirmed to the council that public input would be taken on the next contract.

Changes to the police ombudsman ordinance might be included in those contract negotiations, Beggs said. It’s too early to tell if the changes would constitute a change in working conditions, necessitating bargaining, he said.

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