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Shawn Vestal: It’s a long way from our city charter’s claims to our handcuffed system of police oversight

Bart Logue, the Police Ombudsman for the city of Spokane.  (JESSE TINSLEY/Spokesman-Review)
Bart Logue, the Police Ombudsman for the city of Spokane. (JESSE TINSLEY/Spokesman-Review)

Section 129 of the Spokane City Charter is where the sunshine of optimism shines most brightly with regard to police oversight.

That section enshrines the authority of the ombudsman to “independently investigate any matter necessary” with regard to police complaints and to publish reports about its findings.

Clear and simple.

Article 27 of the city’s contract with the Spokane Police Guild, on the other hand, is where that independence goes to die.

The operations of the ombudsman office were subsumed into the last Guild contract by the Condon administration, and a new proposed contract would weaken the ombudsman’s independence further. Article 27 exists only because civilian oversight has been subsumed to the right of public union workers to collectively bargain over working conditions – and submitting to independent review of their actions is a working condition the cops just can’t get behind.

It will take state law to truly open the way for change on that front. I wrote about that earlier this week as one avenue toward rebalancing authority between citizens and police; today I want to emphasize another tool: sustained citizen pressure.

The past few weeks have taught us that when citizens raise their voices, they can effect change. If citizens and leaders in Spokane want to fulfill the promise of the city charter, they need to do more than wait for changes in state law, or blame the previous administration for its bad contract, or grumble or complain.

They need to raise hell about Article 27. They need to make everyone involved with it profoundly uncomfortable with it. They need to not let it persist quietly, an entrenched affront to the values in the city charter.

They are such simple, appealing principles, after all: Independent investigations. Public reports on the findings.

Here is how the proposed Article 27 claims to meet them.

Say a complaint about an officer whacking someone on the head with a nightstick comes in to the Office of the Police Ombudsman. Our ombudsman then decides if it should be sent to the Spokane Police Department’s Internal Affairs Division or referred for mediation with the chief of police.

In making that determination, our independent ombudsman “may,” according to Article 27, conduct a preliminary investigation, in which he or she would be allowed to interview the actual complainant and other witnesses “as reasonably necessary.”

(In addition to the rules about what happens to complaints that come to the OPO, Article 27 sets out that, when IA receives complaints directly, it will notify the ombudsman of those, as well as the opening of any criminal investigations into officers. IA will have 10 full business days to do so.)

If the ombudsman feels a complaint requires investigation, he will forward it to IA. With very few exceptions, everything that follows will proceed under the auspices of the IA process, to which the ombudsman is chiefly an observer. The chief will first decide if an IA investigation is warranted at all, or if some other, lower-level internal investigation is due.

If an IA probe is opened, the ombudsman will be notified and allowed to attend the interviews IA conducts and ask questions (though not do independent interviews), review evidence, and receive a copy of the case file when IA makes its determination.

If, on the other hand, no investigation is deemed warranted by the chief, and the ombudsman disagrees, he may appeal the decision to the chief. The chief’s decision on his earlier decision will be final.

At that point, the OPO may conduct its own limited investigation into the lack of an investigation and publish a limited report, though Article 27 won’t allow any police officer to be identified.

Now, if an IA investigation is completed, our ombudsman may review that investigation and determine only whether it was “thorough and objective.”

What, you may ask, happens if our independent ombudsman feels the complaint was not thorough, objective or otherwise investigated properly? First, he may ask IA for further investigation. If IA and the ombudsman disagree about the need for more investigation, the ombudsman may appeal to the chief, who will decide whether IA will conduct any further investigation.

If our independent ombudsman remains unsatisfied – having received a complaint about police conduct and forwarded it to IA; having accepted the final decision of the chief as to how the complaint will be investigated and sat in on the IA investigation that followed; and having asked for further investigation and been rebuffed by IA and the chief – a request may be made to the OPO Commission to approve its own investigation, so long as the case is a “serious matter” by the lights of Article 27.

Article 27 goes on to detail what kind of paperwork our independent ombudsman must keep regarding this request for an independent investigation, including a log of evidence that the ombudsman must provide “promptly” to IA. If the commission calls for more investigation, it must then provide IA an opportunity to complete the further investigation that it previously refused to do; if it does not, then and only then could our independent OPO conduct or order its own investigation.

Article 27 makes it clear that police officers would not have to comply with that investigation. It also puts blinders on what the ombudsman can tell the public after its work: A closing report may make policy recommendations, but may not identify any member of the department or even make reference to any discipline in the case.

Can you follow that? The conditions the Guild has been allowed to place on the ombudsman via this contract are a death grip on the charter’s call for independence. The current proposal adds a new layer of interference in the OPO’s independence, expanding the union’s authority to help choose the ombudsmen and members of the OPO Commission, and determine the terms of their service.

The City Council has balked at approving it; in a sane world, Article 27 would require massive revision, if not complete excision, before the contract is approved.

But we do not live in a sane world.

If you care about police accountability in Spokane, don’t forget Article 27.

And if you care about Article 27, say so.