Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Spokane Valley discussion raises issues of creating a public safety oversight committee

Posted By on Wed, Apr 20, 2016 at 4:00 PM

Spokane Valley City Councilman Ed Pace thinks his proposed public safety oversight committee "would bring power closer to the people...and bring people closer to the City Council."

It would oversee police services provided to the Valley by the sheriff's office and operate independently of the Sheriff's Office Citizen's Advisory Board. Yet the most recent discussion of a potential Spokane Valley public oversight committee reveals that it may not have much power at all. 
click to enlarge Spokane Valley City Councilman Ed Pace
  • Spokane Valley City Councilman Ed Pace

Pace first proposed creating a Spokane Valley public oversight committee last month amid the turmoil that followed when the council forced the resignation of city manager Mike Jackson. Last night, during another discussion of the proposal, he described his vision for the committee and how it oversees the sheriff's department using an analogy of going to the dentist.  

"I don't try to tell my dentist how to numb my jaws or how to fill a filling. But I am going to give feedback on, 'I don't like the music in your waiting room. I don't like the magazines. I don't like the way people talk to me here...but I do like this, this and this,'" Pace said. "If, over time, they don't listen to my advice, I'm probably going to look for another dentist."

Either the city or the county can give notice to terminate the contract for police services during an 18-month period starting June 30 of this year, otherwise the contract automatically renews. Pace, ever since proposing the possibility of an oversight committee on March 1, has repeated that the proposal has nothing to do with terminating that contract — or, to use his analogy, choosing another dentist. Both Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich and Spokane Valley Mayor Rod Higgins have also said there is no desire on either side to terminate the contract. Such a move would likely cost the city large sums of money.

But that contract limits the type of oversight a city advisory committee can have over county services, Spokane Valley city attorney Cary Driskell explained during a council meeting last night. 

"We are paying the service provider to give us services, and we don't tell them how to do it. We don't control the manner, method, or means [of how they do it]," Driskell told the council. "We're paying for the end result." 

Though Pace later said that telling them "how to do it" was also not the goal of his proposed committee, Driskell pointed out further issues that would need to be resolved before such a committee is ever formed.

Driskell said it could be a potential cause of liability for the city. He set up a scenario where, due to either alleged police action or inaction, somebody gets seriously injured or dies. The current Sheriff's Office Citizen's Advisory Board would then review that incident, and so would the Valley's oversight committee. But the Valley's committee might not have the same access to police reports as the sheriff's advisory board, so the two committees would end up reviewing the same incident but with different information. 

Rick Eichstaedt, executive director of the Center for Justice, told the council that there are challenges in reviewing an agency that has no hiring or firing power over specific officers. But even though adding another oversight committee of the sheriff's department, on top of the Sheriff Citizen's Advisory Board, may be redundant, he doesn't view that as a bad thing. He clarified his point in an interview with the Inlander following the meeting.

"I think more oversight in general is good," he said. "The challenges (with the Valley) are, given that it's a contract, what authority do they really have?"

He said there have been legitimate concerns in the community about the sheriff's citizen advisory board. The Inlander reported last year that the written decisions of the board have been short, and never critical of the sheriff or his department. Last week, Sheriff Knezovich and Kathryn Olson — a consultant who was head of the Seattle Police Department's Office of Professional Accountability — held a forum in which community members voiced concerns about the board's lack of transparency and the outcomes of specific investigations done by the board. 

Bob West, Vice Chair of the Citizen Advisory Board, said the Valley can come to them whenever they see an issue. He added that the sheriff is "not our puppeteer." 

"They could come to us, as an independent board, and say, 'hey, we have a problem with some of the things going on out in the Valley.' And we would do the same thing with that as anything we might get from Ozzie," West said. 

Eichstaedt said a Valley oversight committee still could have a role if the issues of liability are addressed, though it may be purely advisory. He said it could still document and report concerns to the City Council and city manager in the Valley. 

The committee, as proposed by Pace, would be comprised of an attorney from the Center for Justice, a Spokane Valley police officer, a police officer from another agency, two city councilmembers and two citizens. It was originally supposed to oversee all public services. Driskell pointed out potential liability in city oversight of things like fire, water or court services, so the discussion focused mostly on law enforcement services. That discussion will continue at a later date. 
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