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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Council delays vote on Spokane Police Guild contract

A large crowd marches past Spokane City Hall during a peaceful protest through the streets of Spokane on June 7, 2020.   (Libby Kamrowski)

The Spokane Police Guild and city of Spokane have waited nearly four years to reach a new labor agreement.

They’ll wait at least two weeks longer.

In light of national and local dialogue surrounding police accountability, the Spokane City Council opted Monday to delay the vote on a proposed four-year agreement with the Spokane Police Guild until at least the June 29 meeting.

Although they pushed back the vote without comment on Monday, several members of the City Council have voiced concern about the impact the proposed contract would have on independent civilian oversight of city police officers.

Mayor Nadine Woodward’s office was receiving a flood of community response to the proposal on Monday, according to Brian Coddington, a city spokesman.

“There’s a lot of feedback and a lot to consider, and it’s an important contract. I think everybody is taking a pause to make sure the next step they take is the best for the community,” Coddington said.

The scope of the authority of the Office of the Police Ombudsman, the city’s independent civilian police watchdog, is the central issue for council members.

As with prior agreements, many people – including Spokane Police Ombudsman Bart Logue – argue that the proposed contract fails to fully recognize his authority to investigate complaints against police officers and disclose his findings.

The agreement would end a years-long stalemate between the city and Spokane Police Guild, which has not had a new agreement in place since the previous one expired at the end of 2016.

But within hours of being made public earlier this month, the proposed contract received robust criticism from members of the Spokane City Council and advocates for police reform.

The recent protests over police brutality, racial injustice and the death of George Floyd have only intensified the scrutiny that undoubtedly would have already been applied to the contract.

“The timing is not ideal. It’s awkward at best,” said Coddington, who noted the contract agreement was actually finalized prior to the eruption of protests over Floyd’s death but reached the council shortly thereafter.

Spokane City Council President Breean Beggs was the most prominent and vocal city leader to quickly question the contract. Beggs has advocated for police reform in Spokane for more than a decade as a member of the City Council, former director of the Center for Justice, and as a private attorney who represented the family of Otto Zehm, a custodian, who was developmentally disabled and killed by Spokane police in 2006.

The contract, Beggs has argued, does not explicitly grant the Spokane Police Ombudsman the authority that is embedded into city law, which was overwhelmingly adopted by Spokane voters in the wake of Zehm’s death.

The two main points of conflict are the ombudsman’s ability to independently investigate complaints and then publish a closing report with his findings.

In keeping with past collective bargaining agreements, the new contract does not explicitly state that the ombudsman has that authority. By failing to do so, Beggs warned that the city could be subject to a grievance from the union if the ombudsman exercises that authority.

Cries to defund the police have reverberated nationwide, including in Spokane, from protesters who argue that funding for police budgets would be better spent on social programs and services.

In Spokane, protesters began to take aim at the proposed Police Guild Contract, which carries a $6.2 million hit to the city budget. The agreement would provide increases to officer wages of 2.25% in 2017 and 3% each in 2018, 2019, and 2020.

The Spokane Chapter of the NAACP also has called on the City Council to reject the contract.

The administration of Mayor Nadine Woodward has defended the contract, noting it expands civilian oversight of the police department in several ways, including empowering the assistant ombudsman with the same investigative power and authority as the ombudsman.

Woodward won the Guild’s endorsement in her bid for mayor last year and said negotiating a new contract would be among her top priorities as she took office in 2020.

The most direct path to implementing reforms into the contract would be to approve the current proposal and immediately start negotiations on a labor agreement that extends beyond 2021, Coddington argued.

If the City Council rejects the current proposal, the two sides could end up in arbitration with an independent third party determining a binding resolution.