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Reversing course, the Spokane City Council warms to a less-than-independent ombudsman

When the Spokane City Council last month swiftly and unanimously rejected a contract agreement with the Spokane Police Guild, they were met with praise.

"Thanks for your leadership!" wrote Rick Eichstaedt, executive director of the nonprofit Center for Justice, an outspoken critic of the city and guild, on Council President Ben Stuckart's Facebook page.

"Now we start over," wrote Mayor David Condon in a statement.

Or maybe not.

While some expected the mayor to return to the negotiating table to get what the council had previously demanded — an ombudsman with the authority to open his own investigations outside the police department's internal affairs process — his latest proposal includes the rejected agreement. In addition, a new ordinance, which includes no independent investigative authority, involves a third party when the ombudsman is unsatisfied with a department investigation. (Just who that third party might be is unclear, though the latest draft of the ordinance lists Washington State Patrol or another city's ombudsman as possibilities.)

At a press conference Monday, Condon said he believes the move will make Spokane "a model for civilian oversight."

"What has changed?" asks the Center for Justice's Eichstaedt. "What about this remarkably gives us oversight?"

Today, the civilian ombudsman is allowed to sit in on and ask questions during the internal affairs process, but cannot open his own investigations. Calls for stronger oversight have grown in recent years amid the legacy of high profile incidents like the 2006 death of Otto Zehm, an unarmed mentally ill man who died after a violent confrontation with Spokane Police. In February, 70 percent of voters added language to the Spokane City Charter requiring a "totally independent" ombudsman and a citizen commission to oversee him. While the guild agreement included the creation of the commission, it didn't expand the ombudsman's investigative authority, sparking a council-led effort to grant such authority through an ordinance. But a cross late-October email from a guild attorney stamped out much of that hope, and the council rejected the agreement.

Along with third party involvement, the new ordinance details who will sit on the oversight commission: Two members nominated by the mayor and three by the council. Previous ordinance drafts had also allowed for appointments by the Spokane Police Guild and the Lieutenants and Captains Association. While earlier drafts allowed for former SPD employees to sit on the commission, the latest does not allow current or former city or police department employees.

City Councilman Steve Salvatori, who led an early effort to empower the ombudsman, now says he believes the mayor's plan is satisfactory, but is worried the city has no assurance from the guild that it will not file a legal complaint about the ordinance unfairly changing working conditions. (Condon said Monday the guild is "aware" of the ordinance. Guild President John Gately and attorney Hillary McClure did not return requests for comment.)

City Council President Ben Stuckart, who has previously said the tentative agreement between the city and guild "just doesn't meet what the voters wanted," now says he's willing to support the agreement and the new ordinance if "people believe it's enough of a move in the right direction." Public forums will be held over the next two weeks; the council is expected to vote Dec. 16.

"It's different than what I've heard people talking about what independent investigative authority means ... but maybe everyone will say it's moving in the right direction," Stuckart says. "It's important the public weigh in." ♦

[email protected]

Chances for input on police oversight:

Dec. 5, 6 pm, telephone town hall, call 888-409-5380

Dec. 6, 4 pm, presentation to Community Assembly, Council Briefing Center at City Hall (808 W. Spokane Falls Blvd.)

Dec. 12, 6 pm, town hall meeting, West Central Community Center (1603 N. Belt St.)

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