The terms of a tentative labor agreement between the city and the Spokane Police Guild were published last week, elucidating its potential impact on police oversight and drawing mixed reviews from the city’s police ombudsman.
There is broad consensus that, in comparison to the proposed agreement voted down last year, the new proposal announced earlier this month would enhance the powers of the department’s civilian watchdog while improving officer salaries.
But whether it matches the level of oversight called for in the City Charter remains up for debate.
“I think we’re closer, but I don’t think we’re there yet,” Spokane Police Ombudsman Bart Logue told The Spokesman-Review last week.
The Spokane City Council is set to vote on the proposal on March 1. Its decision is certain to draw public interest and scrutiny, particularly in the wake of protests over police brutality and racial injustice in 2020.
The tentative agreement quickly received the praise of Spokane City Council members, Mayor Nadine Woodward and representatives of the Police Guild, a union representing the city’s police officers. It would provide a long overdue replacement to a contract that expired at the end of 2016.
While he stopped short of advocating City Council voting it down, Logue remains concerned that people who want independent investigations into police conduct and public release of “closing reports” that summarize his findings “probably won’t be satisfied” by the tentative agreement unveiled this week.
“From an independent standpoint, it’s problematic. It’s hard to say that we’re independent if everything is overshadowed by the Guild,” Logue said. “Until we’re there, we probably won’t be in full compliance with the charter, but I think we’re moving closer.”
City leaders have said the new deal addresses the deficiencies in a previous agreement that was unanimously shot down by the City Council last year because members said it failed to meet police oversight standards embedded in the City Charter.
“This contract meets the dual needs of the community to show support for our police officers and also to really gain greater clarity on civilian oversight,” Woodward said at a news conference earlier this month.
City Council President Breean Beggs took a seat directly at the bargaining table for the first time following last year’s rejection. Both sides credit his presence for leading to the new agreement introduced last week. He said it attains standards approved by city voters eight years ago in Proposition 1.
The contract’s approval by members of the Guild and the City Council would put an end to years of negotiations, which stalled as the two sides failed to reconcile the differences between voter-approved police oversight embedded in the City Charter and what’s actually written into the guild’s contract.
“This agreement gets us there now, in my opinion,” Beggs said earlier this month.
The tentative agreement clarifies the ombudsman’s authority to write closing reports and the Guild’s ability to seek recourse if it believes the ombudsman’s office exceeds its authority.
As for pay, officers would receive raises totaling about $9.5 million over five years, with the back pay pulled from city reserves and the 2021 raise already accounted for in the budget.
Role of civilian oversight
The section regarding civilian oversight accounts for nearly one-third of the 77-page tentative agreement.
In a press conference earlier this month. Spokane Police Guild President Kris Honaker said its members do not reject oversight. He also lamented how difficult it is to be a police officer in today’s climate.
“We want to be on the forefront of change and looking to do things the right way, but of course things that happen nationally affect us and affect our members in the way that they’re perceived by their friends and their family and their fellow churchgoers,” Honaker said.
In Spokane’s system, the Police Ombudsman fields complaints, conducts a preliminary investigation and determines whether to forward the matter to the police department’s Internal Affairs unit for a deeper inquiry. The Ombudsman can not make disciplinary decisions but can choose whether to certify the Internal Affairs investigation as “timely, thorough and objective.”
The Ombudsman Commission is a civilian panel that oversees the Office of the Police Ombudsman.
The Ombudsman’s ability to publish a closing report, detailing his perspective on an incident, has long been a subject of debate. Logue has argued that he was effectively prevented from publishing them under the previous agreement, but Logue did issue a lone report last year regarding the controversial deployment of a police dog into a vehicle while the suspect inside voiced his intention to surrender.
While he stopped short of crediting his closing report for the “significant change in the K9” section of the department, Logue said he’s had productive conversations with Spokane Police Chief Craig Meidl since the incident.
“It’s about trying to improve it for next time,” Logue said.
Under the terms of the tentative agreement, the ombudsman can publish a closing report of the results of the investigation “so long as the closing report does not identify specific members of the Department and does not in any way comment on officer discipline (or lack thereof).”
The closing report can’t be used to reopen a case or determine officer discipline. It is not allowed to opine on whether an officer broke the law or violated department policy. It also must make clear that it is the opinion of the ombudsman and commission only, and “that the report is not an official determination of what occurred.”
Given those limitations, Logue will have to tread carefully.
“After we write a couple – we will write a couple very quickly once this is done – we’ll be able to really specifically say what works and what doesn’t and have that feedback to (the) mayor,” Logue said. “Because it is such a short window for bargaining, we’re happy to work in the middle in order to refine what works and what doesn’t.”
The Guild will be allowed to review the report prior to its publication for any potential contract violations.
“If it stops something from becoming a firestorm, that’s probably worth it. If it becomes a delay tactic where they take issue with a sentence, if it becomes something that says we can’t publish a report for months, that will be a problem and we’ll have to address that,” Logue said.
Hiring and firing
Last year’s proposal provided an avenue for the Guild to file a grievance when it believed the ombudsman’s office exceeded its authority, potentially having the ombudsman removed. Under the new version, the Guild can still file a grievance if it believes its members’ rights were violated, but it can not force the removal of the ombudsman or an ombudsman commissioner.
Logue said it was critical that the Ombudsman Commission has the sole authority to hire or fire him, even if he takes a position that is unpopular with the police department.
“Any comment I make would be designed to enhance the police services in Spokane and make them better, and really strategically protect the community as well as the police officers,” Logue said. “I also understand that police are sensitive to that kind of feedback. It doesn’t mean I don’t have to make feedback.”
The path to a truly independent investigation remains full of hurdles, according to Logue. He can decline to certify an Internal Affairs investigation and send it back with questions and “influence the case that way in order to make sure it’s been investigated properly, but that’s not me doing it independently.”
Following the department’s internal investigation, Logue would have to appeal to the police chief, then to the Ombudsman Commission to begin his own truly independent investigation, Logue said.
Logue credited Woodward’s administration for reaching out to his office for input before the agreement was introduced, and said it actually included some of his suggestions into the final draft. That had never happened before, he said, and it gives him hope for the future.
“Everybody would like their way 100% of the time, but in negotiations nobody gets their way 100% of the time. Considering that I’m not part of the negotiations, to even get my way some of the time is actually remarkable,” Logue said.
Should the proposed deal pass, the two sides would have only a brief reprieve before negotiations begin on a new agreement that would cover 2022 and beyond.