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'Growing Pains' 

After five years, the authority of Spokane's police ombudsman has increased — but so has friction with SPD

click to enlarge Police Ombudsman Tim Burns - YOUNG KWAK
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  • Police Ombudsman Tim Burns

When he took the job in 2009, Spokane Police Ombudsman Tim Burns thought he knew what he had signed up for. He had served as a police officer in California for more than 20 years. After that, he worked in code enforcement. He figured police oversight would be fairly routine.

Now he knows better.

"You never know what's going to happen next," Burns says. "Just when you thought you've seen it all ... I can promise you, you haven't."

This week marks five years since Burns stepped in as the city's first police ombudsman, carving out a vaguely defined position in a community deeply divided over police accountability. He has worked with two mayors, three police chiefs and a variety of investigators.

Even now, his office still struggles to live up to its founding ambitions as city officials move toward establishing an ombudsman commission with additional investigative authority.

As the office's influence has expanded in recent months, Burns says he has encountered new friction with the police department — disagreements over case reviews, opposition to reforms, inconsistent access to investigations.

"I understand the police department taking a stand," he says. "I just don't agree with the stand they're taking."

Police officials have downplayed any conflict with the ombudsman, saying they value his input. Meanwhile, Councilman Jon Synder, who chairs the city's Public Safety Committee, argues such disputes will hopefully strengthen the process.

"We didn't hire an ombudsman to agree with the SPD over everything," Snyder says. "That's how things are supposed to work."

One of the primary duties of the ombudsman involves reviewing Internal Affairs investigations and evaluating whether they were conducted in a "timely, thorough and objective" manner. Burns has reviewed hundreds of SPD cases over the past five years, declining to certify only a handful. But that has changed in the past year.

So far this year, he has refused to certify nine investigations, compared to seven cases in the previous four years combined.

Burns attributes the recent discrepancies to changes in how Internal Affairs interprets and adheres to the written review policies. He says he believes the department has adopted, in some cases, more lenient standards than he is comfortable with.

"It's been suggested to me it may be semantics," he says, "but I would argue it's far more than that. ... I believe they're out of policy."

Burns explains that several cases have involved investigators closing cases without passing their findings through to supervisors for a secondary review as mandated by policy. In some cases, his own participation was "overlooked" and cases were closed without his input. In other cases, Burns cited unnecessary delays.

Tim Schwering, who oversees IA as director of Strategic Initiatives, admits that one case involved a misunderstanding on IA's part, but he says any other issues should be addressed in policy changes following an ongoing audit by the Department of Justice. Police officials say the DOJ audit will include recommendations for policy improvements. The review process can then be updated.

"We're not going to change while DOJ is here," Schwering told city officials last week. "We might as well get that all done in one fell swoop."

Schwering maintains IA has not changed how it reviews cases. Burns and councilmembers suggest the department adhere to the written review policies while awaiting DOJ feedback.

"They should comply with their own policies," Burns says. "Until that happens, don't look for my seal of approval. It's not coming."

Part of the disconnect over review practices may come from "constant" turnover in the IA unit, Burns argues. He notes he has worked with 15 different investigators in his five years, causing transition and training delays. SPD officials say IA assignments have been consistent and have not impacted the quality of investigations.

"Some people just got a cup of coffee as they were passing through the assignment," Burns contends, adding, "We need continuity and, in all candor, it hasn't existed in Internal Affairs in my five years."

Burns says he has also encountered firm resistance on recent recommendations for use of force policies. Burns explains a citizen filed a complaint earlier this year over a traffic stop in which SPD officers forcibly pulled him from a vehicle and slammed him to the ground, scraping his face against the pavement. Burns was surprised to learn the department had not filed a use of force report on the incident.

In response, Burns wrote a letter to Police Chief Frank Straub calling for a clarification of the use of force policy, requiring officers to file reports any time a subject has a visible injury or is taken into custody by force. Burns says failing to report minor injuries leads to an incomplete record.

It's impossible to know how many similar incidents might have occurred, he says, or whether the documented 147 SPD incidents involving force last year are actually significantly underreported.

Straub argues that officers use various degrees of force every day to make suspects comply with police orders. In this case, he says the driver refused multiple commands to step out of the vehicle, forcing officers to remove him and cuff him on the ground. He suffered a small abrasion, "the equivalent of your child or my child falling on the playground."

In his letter back to Burns, Straub strongly objected to any implication that the department had not thoroughly monitored use of force, saying no other department tracks how often an officer draws his or her weapon on someone. Straub wrote that he does not believe any changes need to be made.

"I ... greatly appreciate your role in providing independent oversight," he writes. "I would ask, however, that you refrain from broad statements and inferences which create an inappropriate impression of the Spokane Police Department and its officers."

Burns told city councilmembers he and the chief had reached a rare "impasse," leaving him few options but to forward along his concerns.

Police officials have also expressed opposition to a recommendation to have professionals with mental health training offer input on any SPD use of force involving a subject with signs of mental illness, saying again that any changes should wait until after the DOJ audit. Burns contends the department should look to exceed the DOJ's expectations.

"Why shouldn't we lead in this field?" he asks. "Let us lead by example."

Rick Eichstaedt, executive director of the legal nonprofit Center for Justice, says the ombudsman's office has just recently acquired the authority to truly fulfill its mission. It's not surprising to see pushback as Burns leverages that new responsibility on the community's behalf.

"[The] tools that are now available have made Burns a much more effective and assertive ombudsman," Eichstaedt writes, "which is what the people of Spokane asked for and what we need to restore trust in the SPD."

Eichstaedt predicts such "growing pains" will persist as the commission gets seated and the office expands. Schwering, with Internal Affairs, noted the importance of oversight, but acknowledged the community would likely continue "wrestling" with the issue for years to come.

Burns jokes he has aged in dog years since taking the position in 2009. He says he looks forward to helping shape the new commission and building a strong foundation for future oversight. The commission has until the end of his contract on Feb. 20, 2015, to decide whether to keep him on as ombudsman.

Many challenges remain between now and then, but he's come to learn it's all part of the job.

"At the end of the day, what I want is what's best for this community," he says. "We're breaking [new] ground. ... We're always going to be a work in progress." ♦

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