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Shawn Vestal: Spokane Police Guild demand to exclude ombudsman from officer misconduct investigation should be rejected clearly

Mayor David Condon must tell the Spokane Police Guild no.

A simple, hard no. A no-uncertain-terms no. An actual waffle-free no, without qualification or modification or mealymouthing.

The Guild, which represents officers in the Spokane Police Department, is demanding that the police ombudsman be kicked off an investigation into whether officers threatened to kill a suspect and hoisted a police dog into a car to attack the man. There’s body-cam video of the encounter, word of which has been dribbling out, and an ongoing internal affairs investigation.

The early, admittedly incomplete accounts of the incident make it sound awful – awful enough that we would want to make absolutely sure that the investigation into it is clean.

So the mayor has to say no to the Guild. If he doesn’t, he’ll render the ombudsman system meaningless – a travesty of oversight, puppeteered by the overseen. If the Guild can kick the ombudsman off a case, then the ombudsman office is a sham.

Condon, who swept into office in part by targeting the police-accountability failures of his predecessors, is responsible for making that clear to the Guild and to the public. Fixing those earlier problems was easier because he didn’t really own them; they weren’t his mistakes.

But his administration owns this one completely, top to bottom. And the quality of the response to the case from the mayor and his administration is now every bit as much an issue as what’s on that body-cam video.

I wanted to ask Condon his thoughts about this, but a message seeking comment was not returned this week. Police Chief Craig Meidl said he is not taking a formal position about the involvement of Logue in the case, and is proceeding on the assumption that he does not have the authority to kick him off. He also said he could say little about the case specifically, because the investigation is ongoing, but urged people to remain open for a fuller picture of events.

“He’s been there (for the IA investigation) and he’ll be there,” Meidl said. “I don’t believe I have the authority to disinvite him.”

Neither Meidl nor the Guild has – or should have – that authority. That’s the clear line to which Condon should give a bright new coat of paint.

The case in question is just the kind of thing for which we need an outsider to double-check the police department’s work. It involves an arrest from last February; video of the incident is said to show “extremely aggressive” tactics, including death threats aimed at a suspect, and a moment of officers smashing the windows of a car with a baton and hoisting a police dog into the car, where he attacked the suspect who was reportedly surrendering.

That’s an account based on two anonymous sources who have seen the video, reported by The Inlander. There is much more to the case that is not known; the internal affairs investigation continues.

So the allegations of force are very serious, and potentially explosive in terms of publicity. But there’s a further problem that speaks to the need for an ombudsman’s involvement – the sense that the case was being swept under the rug. The department did not initially open an internal affairs investigation into the matter, nor did it notify Logue, as it is supposed to do.

Logue wound up viewing a video of the incident only after he was tipped off to its presence by local blogger, former cop and gadfly Brian Breen; Logue then reached out to the SPD to ask why he had not been notified and why no IA investigation had been opened. (This is the second time that a misconduct case did not make its way to Logue’s office as it should have, and became public only via the efforts of Breen.)

The department belatedly opened a probe at that point; as with all IA investigations, Logue is empowered to shadow investigators and eventually certify whether the investigation is done right.

Logue says that his concerns about the case have been greeted with dismissal and disinterest from everyone at SPD, including Meidl.

Information about the case and the video have made their way to City Council members and others, including some in the news media. For this, the Guild blames Logue. The union’s president, Kris Honaker, sent a letter to Condon, Meidl, City Administrator Theresa Sanders and other officials, alleging Logue has leaked information to the public, didn’t follow proper procedures and is unable to be impartial because he’s the complainant in the case.

“For these reasons, the Guild demands that Logue be excluded from the investigation until it is complete,” Honaker’s letter says.

Honaker proceeds to threaten further grievances and claims of unfair labor practices if the Guild’s demands are not met.

Like a ransom note.

Logue “strenuously object(s)” to the accusations in a letter answering the Guild, and says it was the department, not him, who listed him as the complainant in the matter. He said a third-party needs to investigate the whole mess, and he’s right.

If there are problems with Logue’s behavior, someone other than the Guild should determine that. The Guild letter represents, on its face, an astonishing affront to the ombudsman system.

When officers wonder why some in the public don’t have faith in them, why some in the public believe that cops are too violent and can’t be trusted to own up to their mistakes, they can look back on this letter – and their own long history of obstructionism on the matter of accountability – as yet another reason for that breakdown.

The demand is outrageous and the mayor should reject it clearly and forcefully.

If he doesn’t, it’s time to ashcan the whole system and start over.