The upcoming mayoral election could have serious implications for the future of police oversight in Spokane.
Whoever wins will likely have the opportunity to negotiate with the Spokane Police Guild about the role of the police department’s civilian watchdog and to appoint a police chief who has the job of implementing that watchdog’s policy recommendations and disciplining officers.
Though established more than a decade ago, the role of that watchdog – known as the police ombudsman – remains up for debate and continues to evolve. And those running for mayor have different ideas about what the ombudsman should be able to do.
Mayoral candidate Nadine Woodward has earned the endorsement of the Spokane Police Guild and said she supports the existence of the civilian ombudsman’s office as it exists.
Candidate and current City Council President Ben Stuckart, on the other hand, sees room for the ombudsman’s role to expand. He wants to ensure the ombudsman is notified of every investigation into officer conduct and that the ombudsman be fully empowered to publish independent conclusions.
Jonathan Bingle favors creating an inspector general’s office to investigate every level of municipal government, not just police, while candidate Kelly Cruz wants to take a collaborative approach to ironing out disagreements between the police guild and ombudsman’s office.
None of the candidates favor empowering the ombudsman to take disciplinary action.
A fifth candidate for mayor, Shawn Poole, could not be reached for comment on Friday.
Whoever wins the election in November will succeed a mayor, David Condon, whose platform as a candidate eight years ago stressed police reform and oversight.
But unless Condon negotiates a contract with the Spokane Police Guild before he leaves office, the next mayor will be tasked with leading collective bargaining negotiations, which include deciding the extent and practical application of police oversight in Spokane.
Rick Eichstaedt, an attorney who led the Center for Justice until 2018, said there “is an inherent tension” between what voters overwhelmingly supported in 2013 and what the police guild has advocated.
“What’s going to be in that contract? Are we going to have a mayor that’s going to push for more independence?” Eichstaedt asked.
A representative of the police guild could not be reached for comment on Friday.
The mayor also appoints the police chief, who is responsible for taking disciplinary action against officers and implementing the policy recommendations of the ombudsman.
The mayor also nominates two members of the five-member police ombudsman commission
Police oversight rocketed to the forefront of public debate following the death of Otto Zehm, a mentally ill janitor who died in police custody in 2006, after he was beaten and shocked with a Taser by police despite not having committed a crime. Spokane Police Officer Karl F. Thompson Jr. was later convicted in 2011 – less than a week before Condon was elected mayor – of violating Zehm’s civil rights and lying to cover up his conduct.
Voters approved in 2013 rules that ensconced the ombudsman in the City Charter and created a civilian commission that can call for additional investigation into police conduct.
But the exact function of the ombudsman remains unclear.
Ask four people what the ombudsman’s office does, and you’ll get four different answers, said Ombudsman Bart Logue, who has served in the position for more than three years.
“We’re not an advocate for a community member’s side. We’re not an advocate for the police department’s side, just the facts,” Logue said.
Advocates for additional police oversight say the measures taken in recent years, including the implementation of body cameras, are working. The number of complaints filed against Spokane police officers has decreased in recent years.
The ombudsman’s office documented 69 complaint cases in 2018, compared with 135 cases in 2011.
“I am a supporter of the ombudsman. I think it’s extremely important to have an independent party where citizens can voice complaints without fear of retaliation or intimidation,” Woodward said.
Although she understands the “ombudsman does not run the police department” and does not make disciplinary decisions, Woodward argued that “the ombudsman’s authority needs to be limited” and should remain as is.
Jonathan Bingle said “civilian oversight is very important.” He not only supports an ombudsman but would be open to an inspector general who could review operations within every city department.
Cruz said he can’t see why anybody would be suspicious of an ombudsman as long as the position does not have the authority to determine discipline.
“I can’t see why that would cause anybody angst,” Cruz said.
The role of the ombudsman is reportedly a sticking point in the ongoing negotiations between the city and the police guild, which has gone without a contract since the end of 2016.
Logue said he has not been asked for his input on how police oversight should be in the guild contract.
“They could come out with a contract tomorrow and that will be my new marching orders, and I have no idea what it is,” Logue said.
Though he could not elaborate on open negotiations, which are discussed by the City Council in executive session, Stuckart laid out his priorities should he be elected mayor.
“At a minimum, the ombudsman should always be able to publish a closing report after all discipline and everything is done,” Stuckart said.
City law states that the ombudsman “shall publish” a closing report that summarizes the complaint, the investigation and the findings. But in practice it hasn’t worked that way, advocates for additional police oversight have said.
While the ombudsman’s authority is to write a closing report, the ombudsman may not name officers and the report cannot be used to justify disciplinary action.
In 2011, an arbitrator struck down a law passed by the City Council in 2010 that, among other powers, enabled the ombudsman to publish reports. But in practice, the standard for what cases the Ombudsman releases a report on and what that report encompasses has not been so clear.
Based on the 2010 ruling, Logue, the ombudsman, makes policy recommendations, but does not publish reports regarding individual officers’ actions.
“The only things that I write in regards to actual casework on internal affairs cases is in regards to whether or not I will certify (the investigation),” Logue said.
Cruz agrees that the ombudsman should be allowed to publish an independent conclusion.
“I think an independent conclusion, that’s what the office was set up for, for people to see an independent conclusion to an issue,” Cruz said.
Woodward said that while it appears the ombudsman wants that ability, she would have to “look further” into it before commenting.
Bingle said he is in favor of the ombudsman releasing independent conclusions, but only “when it’s done the right way” and does not interfere with the police department’s own investigation.
Cruz noted that the majority of voters supported the ombudsman commission.
“I’d like to sit down and hear from both sides – the ombudsman and the guild – and see what the issues are and see if we can work toward a compromise,” Cruz said. “When we have a sit down and an open discussion about the issues and the process, we can come to a better conclusion.”
Stuckart raised the ombudsman’s role in an arrest that remains the subject of ongoing debate.
In February, Officers Dan Lesser and Scott Lesser confronted 29-year-old Lucas Ellerman, who was inside the cab of a truck that attempted to flee from a traffic stop. The officers initially wrestled with Ellerman before lifting a police dog into the cab of the truck, which bit Ellerman in the left leg and left a wound that required stitches. Police believed Ellerman was in possession of and possibly reaching for a gun, but no gun was recovered, according to police incident reports.
Ellerman pleaded guilty in April to two counts of attempting to elude a police vehicle and one count of possession of a controlled substance.
Officers allegedly threatened to kill Ellerman, a witness told police.
“The hole that we found this spring in the Lesser case is that they internally had not recommended an (Internal Affairs) investigation, and so the ombudsman was not alerted to it and didn’t even know to go look at the video,” Stuckart said.
City ordinance states that the ombudsman should be notified of any incident involving police “where death or serious bodily injury results.”
In cases such as the Lesser incident, the ombudsman needs to be made aware, Stuckart argued.
“That loophole needs to be closed,” he said.
Stuckart and the rest of the City Council were told by the administration it could review body camera footage of the incident, but on the condition that they sign a nondisclosure agreement. The council members declined to do so.
“If I’m going to view that video, I want to be able to express what I’ve seen publicly,” Stuckart said.
Logue’s preference would simply be that “I would be notified anytime it’s something that the public would care about,” he said.
“If you think there could be misconduct, that should be put into a complaint file and the ombudsman’s office should be notified,” Logue said. “After that, the only thing we have anything to do with is the investigation process.”
In the Lesser case, Logue said he will make recommendations following the investigation, but “it will be in regards to the process of how (the investigation) was handled” and not “in regards to what the officer did or did not do.”
Woodward declined to comment on the Lesser case. As for which complaints should be forwarded to the ombudsman, Woodward said “I would have to look more into that.”
The ombudsman should not review “the little stuff,” Bingle said.
“The department should have the ability to say, ‘This is something we can handle ourselves,’” Bingle said, noting that city ordinance already specifies what should be forwarded to the ombudsman.
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter
Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.