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Flawed Oversight? 

The city and the guild reach a tentative agreement on a police ombudsman

Independent civilian oversight is meant to help restore trust between the people and the Spokane Police Department, it is already not working, even though the city is likely still months away from hiring its first police ombudsman.

The city announced two weeks ago that a tentative agreement on the authority of a civilian ombudsman had been hashed out in negotiations with the Police Guild.

Since then there has been a growing chorus of dismay that characterizes the agreement as "ombudsman lite," as the Center for Justice calls it in a Web posting, with powers that are less than those recommended by a consultant last year.

Attorneys Jeffry Finer and Breean Beggs of the Center for Justice contend the Police Guild gained too much influence over the ombudsman office during negotiations, citing the evaporation of independent investigative authority, and a new detail that the ombudsman be hired by a five-person committee that would include two slots for police.

Police oversight professionals in other cities give the tentative agreement mixed reviews questioning the lack of independent investigative authority.

But others -- notably Police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick, who has advocated for civilian oversight of her department -- say, whoa, take a deep breath.

The tentative agreement is just that -- tentative. The first test towards a permanent working model comes at an April 30 meeting of the Police Guild, called so that union leadership can present details of the negotiation.

The police department has passed out copies of the tentative agreement to all employees, says Det. Ernie Wutherich, president of the Guild. Wutherich was involved with the ombudsman negotiations since they began last August. He assembled a team that included Guild leadership, its attorney and members invited from all shifts, units and experience levels. "You want a well-rounded view," Wutherich says.

At the April 30 meeting, "If nobody makes a motion to carry it to a vote ... I'll have to go back to the city and tell them the tentative agreement was refused."

In that event, negotiations could begin anew or the parties could agree to arbitration.

If Guild members do move to vote on the tentative agreement, union bylaws require at least two weeks for discussion and review. Then a second meeting will be called where the nearly 300 members will vote by secret ballot, with results announced at the same meeting, Wutherich says. A simple majority is needed.

& lt;span class= & quot;dropcap & quot; & T & lt;/span & he second test toward a permanent working model will come via the city council, assuming the Guild accepts the agreement.

City Council President Joe Shogan promises to hold public hearings that span several days if needed, to give residents a chance to air their views on the tentative agreement. Any adjustment of the document may require more negotiation with the Guild, or arbitration.

"People can weigh in," Shogan says.

He got a taste of that Monday morning when the regular monthly meeting of the council's public safety committee was swarmed by more than 40 people, most of them critical of the tentative agreement.

If there is already so much disagreement, does this mean Spokane's Office of Professional Ombudsman is broken before it even officially exists?

Yes, says Finer, who is among the Center for Justice attorneys suing the city on behalf of the family of Otto Zehm, the mentally disabled janitor who died in 2006 after a fight with police officers who mistakenly thought he was a robbery suspect.

Why pay for an ombudsman whose independence and authority is compromised by concessions made to the Police Guild? Finer asks.

Is it broken?

No, says Kirkpatrick, who has advocated more stringent oversight since taking the job as police chief 19 months ago.

Independent oversight "was one of the top three issues I heard as an outsider coming to this community," Kirkpatrick says. "It's an issue, as I assess it, of transparency, of wanting to make sure there is no cover-up and everything is above board.

"What does this agreement give you? It gives you transparency. It gives you an independent person who has to certify that they looked at an investigation, that it is complete, it is fair and they have total access.

"Bottom line for me," Kirpatrick says, "does this agreement answer the core issue? To me, yes."

Boise's Community Ombudsman Pierce Murphy concurs -- to an extent. (Murphy will speak in Spokane on May 16.) "I have read the tentative agreement. It provides far more than Spokane has now: someone who doesn't report to the chief, and who has somewhat independent standing to do what heretofore no one in Spokane has been able to do -- review and sit in on internal affairs investigations and report to the public," he says.

Murphy says, however, that the ombudsman's office would be better served if it had more independence to conduct investigations.

Barbara Attard, San Jose's independent police auditor, says the same. "I was surprised to see ... that once complaints are received they must be submitted to the chain of command to initiate investigations. I think some investigative authority ... is a very important part of an ombudsman office."

Sam Pailca, the former ombudsman for Seattle and consultant hired by Kirkpatrick, says some of the current disagreements can be addressed in the way the city council writes the ordinance implementing an ombudsman's office.

Pailca says, "The ability to have the ombudsman sitting at the table in real time with investigators and advising directly with the chief before the case is closed -- those are substantive changes."

She says independent investigative authority is rarely used. "In my six years, that never once happened."

She's concerned more about a question that hasn't yet been asked: Who can fire the ombudsman?

"That's a huge issue," says Pailca. "In order to do the work you need some degree of insulation from shifting political tides."

Adds Boise's Murphy: "These jobs ... you are in the middle of stuff and you have to speak the truth. You can't do that if you are looking over your shoulder."

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