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Shawn Vestal: Police union again undermines independent oversight by ombudsman

Bart Logue, the police ombudsman, is shown in this 2016 photo. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.

Actually, don’t.

Because you’ve definitely heard it before.

The ongoing battle to achieve independent oversight of the Spokane Police Department – a value that voters in this city have supported overwhelmingly – is again being thwarted by the police officers union, in concert with compliant city administrators deferring to a legal framework that grants the union wide latitude in negotiating anything that might affect working conditions.

It’s another verse in the continual ballad of Spokane’s effort to reform and impose citizens oversight on the way complaints about police are handled: The Spokane Police Guild stands in the way at every turn, arguing that the demands of transparency and citizens oversight are but union bargaining issues – a strategy through which they continually attempt, often successfully, to block independent oversight.

And now, in a year when police complaints are steeply up from past years, the guild is thwarting the operation of the ombudsman’s office and seeking to weaken its authority on several fronts:

    Opposing access to internal affairs investigations by the ombudsman commission, as city law seems to allow;

    Opposing and slow-rolling the release of data involving the use of force against African-Americans, as requested by a commissioner of the Office of the Police Ombudsman Commission;

    And filing a grievance against the single instance in which the ombudsman refused to certify an investigation into a police complaint and called for further investigative work – a request that Chief Craig Meidl has denied, saying it exceeds the commission’s authority, and which the guild is trying to turn into a matter of negotiation.

These actions fly in the face of the city law that prohibits interference with the operation of the Office of the Police Ombudsman.

“Their role is not to tell me how to decide or what to decide or what the (Office of the Police Ombudsman Commission) should do,” said Bart Logue, the city’s police ombudsman. “They should have no role in that at all.”

And yet, at every turn, there they are. The biggest role of all.

The guild says these are bargaining issues – matters involving working conditions that must be resolved in contract negotiations. In a state with strong labor rights, this has allowed the guild to prevent, soften, alter and otherwise muck up the gears of reform time and time again.

Mayor David Condon and Meidl are going along with the idea that the questions need to be resolved during negotiations, and argue that this adheres to the advice of its legal advisers.

Meidl said this week that due to the complexity of open contract negotiations with the guild – negotiations that involve many issues and multimillion-dollar considerations for the city – the administration has decided that it makes sense to try and resolve the issues at the bargaining table, rather than try to go to battle over one issue. He said he believes the issues will be settled one way or another in the near future, if not via bargaining then by other channels.

The conflict between citizens oversight and the legal, labor rights of the police officers is a truly knotty one, and Meidl is not in an easy position. I believe he has demonstrated good faith in lots of efforts to try to make the department better and in working with the ombudsman’s office, and has demonstrated that in some ways, including working with Logue on redefining use-of-force parameters.

But the guild’s involvement in police reform in Spokane has been a case of continually asserting its control over the process, and its prerogatives to influence the process are greater than anyone else’s. That’s just messed up. The overseen should not have such sway over the terms of their oversight.

And so the influence of the guild is taking precedence over city law and clear intent of the voters again, tying the hands of the ombudsman. That’s what happened before the law establishing the ombudsman system was even passed, when guild opposition led to a significant watering-down, and that’s what’s happening now.

The conflict comes at a time when complaints about police misconduct are rising steeply. In a letter of complaint filed against Meidl in November, the OPOC noted it had received 60 complaints this year, double the number of 2017.

“We are concerned with SPD’s continuous interference with the OPO’s independence,” the complaint read, noting the department had “hindered the work of the OPO in several ways” that violate city law.

The department has been denying the ombudsman office access for more than six months to its database of internal affairs cases, which makes it hard to complete full and accurate monthly reports, as called for under city law. This comes after the department had previously made such information available regularly. The department also has been slow to respond to requests for information, to put it mildly, as part of a desire to review use-of-force cases against African-Americans.

That complaint arrived about a month after a letter to Meidl and Condon raising concerns about the same issues from the Center for Justice. In response, Condon and Meidl sent a letter that didn’t bother to substantively address the concerns. Instead, it listed, in self-congratulatory fashion, all the other progress in the department; complained that the complaint did not follow the proper process; and took the position that SPD’s current obstructionism isn’t a violation of clearly stated municipal law but merely an open question that remains to be decided.

Further – and key – was this closing line: “we cannot implement every recommended change without first considering labor impacts and legal rights of our workforce.”

Ah, yes. The guild over the law.

The latest problem comes as the guild has filed a grievance over the first true application of the ombudsman office’s authority to demand accountability from the cops when the cops resist. It’s a minor case – a complaint over officer demeanor that might strike most as petty – but the department’s intransigence is a relatively major indication of its attitude toward the ombudsman. Logue refused to certify the investigation as complete, and the commission kicked it back to the SPD internal affairs for further investigation.

The administration has resisted, and guild says the OPOC is overreaching.

Taken together, these actions reflect continued disdain for the values of transparency and accountability.

The independent function of the ombudsman’s office is crucial. The resistance of the guild shows continued disdain for the values of openness and oversight – a disdain with roots all the way back in the worst days of the Otto Zehm case.

And the continual inability or unwillingness of the people at the top to challenge the guild is threatening to make a mockery of the whole system.

“This is not the way things are supposed to go,” Logue said. “I think it all comes down to the interference of the guild and pushing the city toward the bargaining table.”

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