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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane City Council considers allowing ombudsman to investigate police chief

Spokane police Chief Craig Meidl, center, talks about a spate of violent crimes perpetrated by youthful offenders at a press conference Thursday, April 13, 2023 at the SPD’s downtown substation while Captain Dave Singley, left, and Mayor Nadine Woodward, right, listens.  (Jesse Tinsley/THE SPOKESMAN-REVI)

A month after Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward declined to launch an investigation into police Chief Craig Meidl’s communications with local business owners, the Spokane City Council will consider giving that authority to the Office of the Police Ombudsman.

An emergency ordinance providing that authority is scheduled for a vote June 12.

The Office of the Police Ombudsman is authorized to monitor and investigate the police department, but under city code, complaints against the police chief must be directed to the mayor and investigated by the city’s human resources department. However, this provision relies on the city administration to abide by the city code.

The ordinance, sponsored by Council President Breean Beggs and Councilwoman Karen Stratton, would explicitly allow the ombudsman to investigate the police chief. In a Monday committee meeting, Beggs said this would align city code with the city charter, which authorizes the ombudsman to investigate “any matter necessary to fulfill its duty.”

“This would just remove that language that seems to restrict the ombudsman’s powers that are under the charter,” Beggs said Monday. “It doesn’t direct the ombudsman to do anything.”

In December, the Office of the Police Ombudsman released a report detailing the aftermath of a 2020 homicide in Browne’s Addition and a subsequent confrontation between police and Councilwoman Betsy Wilkerson after Wilkerson requested a warrant before releasing surveillance footage from her business.

Activists have focused their attention not on the initial confrontation, but on the tightknit relationship between Meidl and local business leaders, particularly Chud Wendle, that the ombudsman discovered during the course of the investigation.

Since 2021, Meidl and Wendle, who is active in local politics and has been sharply critical of Wilkerson and other left-leaning council members, emailed each other “hundreds, if not thousands” of times, according to the report.

Meidl provided Wendle information about cases and suspects, had special reports compiled and shared information for “lobbying purposes,” among others, according to the report.

Though the report touched on Meidl’s conduct as it related to the broader investigation, the Office of the Police Ombudsman’s ability to fully investigate the police chief’s communications was limited by city code, Beggs has said.

In March, activists called for Meidl to resign, arguing his communications with local business leaders amounted to a shadow effort to undermine police reform-minded politicians.

Meidl has said he did not plan to step down and defended his communications, saying he worked closely with Spokane business owners with a vested interest in safety downtown, but had done similarly with some of the activists calling for his resignation.

The draft ordinance is likely to undergo numerous other changes before it comes before the council for a vote to align city code with provisions in the most recent contract with the police union, said Deputy Ombudsman Luvimae Omana in a brief interview. These updates include extending the time allowed for a preliminary investigation and to certify an investigation after it is completed, the mediation process and other particulars about the function of the Office of the Police Ombudsman.

While the Office of the Police Ombudsman would be authorized to investigate the police chief under the proposed ordinance, the office is not able to recommend discipline or compel testimony from those it is investigating.