The city of Spokane and the Spokane Police Guild could strike their first new labor agreement in more than three years, but it faces questions over police oversight before the Spokane City Council signs off.
The tentative new contract is certain to meet substantial scrutiny from the council when it takes the issue up next week.
The deal negotiated by Mayor Nadine Woodward’s administration offers the city’s police officers a pay raise totaling more than $6 million, but does not include the strengthening of independent police oversight sought by Spokane City Council President Breean Beggs and others.
Council members say that the new contract, like the previous contract, does not honor the full authority granted to the Spokane police ombudsman, its civilian watchdog, under a city law adopted by a majority of voters.
“My struggle is I just don’t know how I could vote for a contract that in my opinion is outright noncompliant with the city charter,” said Councilman Michael Cathcart.
Ombudsman Bart Logue criticized the proposal in an email to members of the council and Woodward on Sunday.
“This potential contract greatly infringes upon the independence of the Office of the Police Ombudsman,” Logue wrote. “In this job, I have faced numerous accusations, disrespect, and outright hostility from the police guild. I have faced countless obstacles from the police department and city as I have worked to fulfill the requirements of the office.”
The contract also includes new language allowing the union to file a grievance in an attempt to block a candidate for ombudsman or ombudsman commission member, as well as seek removal of the ombudsman or commission member who violates their authority.
Beggs called the addition a “huge impediment” to the ombudsman’s office that will encourage it “to play it safe.”
However, the contract made several improvements eyed by reform advocates like Beggs. It allows the ombudsman’s assistant and office personnel access to confidential case information, a change advocated by Logue.
The deal also would empower the assistant ombudsman with much of the same authority as the ombudsman, as well as provide the ombudsman’s office with the authority to investigate a complaint even if the police department does not.
Beggs released a statement on Saturday calling the contract the result of an “impasse without any traditional solutions in front of us.”
“The issues and context at this moment are quite complex and council has a difficult path before it in reaching a solution that builds justice for all,” Beggs wrote.
Though long under negotiation, the new deal will be considered by the council amid widespread protests regarding police accountability and brutality, including in Spokane, where thousands of people rallied during each of the past two Sundays.
“I think now more than ever, an ombudsman having full investigating powers is so important,” said Councilwoman Lori Kinnear.
City spokesman Brian Coddington sought to put the debate over police accountability and oversight raging now in Spokane into a recent historical context. The department voluntarily underwent a review by the Department of Justice in 2012, and in 2014 the DOJ released a report that found the Spokane Police Department’s use of force was increasing and its relationship with the community was “fractured.”
In the years following, the police department implemented all 42 recommendations from the DOJ, and then some, and saw its use of force decrease and perception from city residents improve, according to a survey conducted for the DOJ report.
All patrol officers now wear body cameras, and each has undergone at least 40 hours of crisis intervention training. The department, on its own accord, participated in implicit bias training recommended by former President Barack Obama’s administration. It also shifted from a “warrior” model of policing to a “guardian,” community-oriented focus, Coddington added.
“Nobody from the police department is going to tell you ‘We’re there and done.’ There’s been good progress and collaboration all the way along, and there’s a significant way to go in continuing to improve the department,” Coddington said.
Coddington called the proposed contract the result of a “give and take.”
“Both sides put forth proposals and both sides, in a fair negotiation, end up giving a little bit and gaining a little,” Coddington said.
The City Council has the final say on the contract, which is scheduled for consideration on June 15.
Formed in response to Otto Zehm’s killing by Spokane Police in 2006, the police ombudsman exists to independently receive civilian complaints against police, review them, and – if needed – forward them to the police department’s Internal Affairs unit for investigation.
Internal Affairs investigates the complaint and forwards the information to the police chief, who has full authority to dole out punishment. The ombudsman can choose to certify, or not certify, the Internal Affairs investigation, but has no role in the discipline of an officer.
The police ombudsman commission oversees the ombudsman.
Beggs and others have held that the guild’s current contract is at odds with the ombudsman’s authority under city charter.
The proposed contract does not address the two main points Beggs advocated for, providing the ombudsman clear authority to independently investigate a complaint and publish a closing report following an internal affairs investigation.
The ombudsman has those powers under the city charter, but they are not expressly written into the oversight section of the guild’s contract – potentially allowing the guild to file a grievance if the ombudsman exercises them, Beggs said.
“My biggest thing is it needs to comply with the charter, that’s really the sticking point. That’s what the people voted for, that’s what people have been expecting,” said Councilwoman Betsy Wilkerson. “Especially now, it needs to be there…if this isn’t the window of time, I don’t see any time in the future.”
The deal would be the first collective bargaining agreement between the city and its police union in more than three years, and cover the years of 2017 through 2020.
Because the bulk of the contract is retroactive, the city would owe its officers back pay and an increase through 2020, totaling $6.2 million. The contract includes cost of living increases to officer wages of 2.25% in 2017 and 3% each in 2018, 2019, and 2020.
“It’s unconscionable that a city employee would have to wait three years for a contract,” Kinnear said. “(Woodward), to her credit, was handed a hot mess and then expected to, in the first six months, wade through it and get something that would pass. Talk about unfair. Good grief.”
It includes other adjustments that Beggs described as “minor improvements,” such as allowing the ombudsman to appeal the classification of a complaint as “minor.”
“I am exploring some other outside-the-box ideas with council members and the administration that may yet allow us to pay our employees within our budget without compromising on independent oversight, but it will not be easy,” Beggs wrote.
A guild representative could not be reached for comment on Monday.
The Spokane Police Guild endorsed Woodward in her successful bid for a first term as mayor last year, and she pledged to make negotiating the overdue contract a priority.
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