Arrow-right Camera
Go to e-Edition Sign up for newsletters Customer service
Subscribe now

This column reflects the opinion of the writer. To learn about the differences between a news story and an opinion column, click here.

Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: Rejection of Guild deal a great step, but far from an ending

The unanimous Spokane City Council rejection of the contract proposed with the Police Guild was a victory for police accountability and for democracy itself.

But it was one battle, not the whole long war. And though it was by no means easy, it was the easy part.

Faced with an unprecedented level of public pressure, every single member of the City Council voted Monday to reject the proposed contract, which would build upon the previous bad contract by giving the union even more authority over the ombudsman office. It was an extraordinary call for putting principle and the will of the people first.

It’s an important principle. Of all the reform ideas out there now, all the good proposals for changing the way police operate, none has more promise for true, deep, broad reform and accountability than independent civilian oversight.

So the vote was important, and it was heartening to see every member of the council affirm the important principles that are supposed to guide our city.

It did not, though, dispel significant obstacles to reform embedded in labor law. It did not erase the fact that Mayor Nadine Woodward – who ran for office with the Guild’s backing and whose administration would renegotiate the deal if further negotiation is to occur – publicly praised the horrendous contract and has given little reason to believe she values the principles embedded in the city charter.

And, most crucially, it does not erase the Guild’s long-standing and clear opposition to what voters approved and what our city charter demands – an ombudsman with full independence to investigate complaints about the police and issue public reports.

It does not shine a magic ray of sunlight and understanding into the hearts of the union members who have come to believe their desire not to be overseen outweighs the public’s demand that they be overseen. Their resistance to the citizens’ will has been continuous.

No, what the vote likely did was set us on a course for a potential labor dispute that could last months or years, and in which our odds of victory are by no means certain.

The Guild could end this right now, of course. The police could take their pay raise and drop all language that allows them to interfere with the operation of the ombudsman’s office.

Easy peasy.

We should expect that to happen around the time our new Space Force headquarters opens.

No, the road to police accountability did not become shorter or smoother with Monday’s vote, as welcome as it was as a statement of principle. The legal and political landscape did not become more forgiving. The thousands of citizens who called upon our City Council to do the right thing should understand that this is a marathon – a super marathon – and not a sprint.

Winning this battle by no means is a guarantee that the war won’t still be lost.

Veterans of police reform efforts in Spokane know that better than most. They’ve been here before, after all – on the cusp of seeming victory – only to see it steamrolled. In 2013, the City Council voted against a Guild contract for failing to live up to what voters had just passed – a proposition calling for independent police oversight that became part of the city charter.

But the council soon thereafter approved a contract that wasn’t much better, allowing the Guild to put strict guardrails on the ombudsman process, with the idea that trying to buck the union was a losing proposition. It was, the council insisted, good enough.

Good enough it wasn’t, though. One of the disastrous results of that first deal is that the operation of the ombudsman’s office is now contained, top to bottom, within the Guild contract – the first contract. Everything about the way the ombudsman operates – who is notified of complaints and when, who can look at which records, when the ombudsman may ask a question or contact a witness, what the ombudsman can tell the public – is governed by the union contract.

It’s perverse.

It’s also already what we’re living with.

The current proposed deal that the council rejected Monday was based largely on that one. Woodward emphasized that it made some improvements to processes and access to information, and it did, but they were exceedingly minor compared to the expansion of authority it would hand the Guild to interfere with the selection of the ombudsman and the board members who oversee the office – and to seek the removal of those people when the Guild decides they “exceed their authority.”

Given an inch, the Guild sought a mile. The mayor tried to give it to them.

The council had to say no. Council members said they have never received so many emails and calls from constituents about an issue – thousands and thousands of them, they said. There had been talk that the best way to deal with the bad contract was just to approve it now, because it’s so overdue that it will expire in December, and get to work on making the next one better.

But the eruption of national concern over policing and justice, over race and the use of force, fueled public demand that we not capitulate again.

It fueled demands that we avoid good enough and go for good. It set the council members – every one of them – on a pathway toward standing for principle over accommodation.

It was great to see. The fight for police reform in Spokane has been a long one, with ups and downs; Monday night was an up.

But it was far from an end.

More from this author