Thursday, November 1, 2012

Justice advocates call for more ombudsman power

Posted By on Thu, Nov 1, 2012 at 11:55 AM

Local justice advocates want to remind city officials of some promises they made earlier this year. 

Today, the Center for Justice and the Peace and Justice Action League of Spokane held a press conference urging city negotiators to make sure the new police contract, currently being negotiated, allows for expanding the ombudsman's powers. They also presented a draft ordinance that would change the way the ombudsman is selected and give the office more power. Along with new powers, the ordinance would establish a new commission to oversee the office and help select the ombudsman. 

The Spokane City Council has said it wants to give Police Ombudsman Tim Burns the power to independently investigate police conduct. In his "Immediate Police Action Plan," released this February, Mayor David Condon said he wants to do the same thing.

Yet, no legislative action has been taken. Burns can monitor internal police investigations, but cannot ask his own questions or issue his own reports.

The ombudsman office was created in 2008, and in 2010 the city gave it independent investigatory powers. But last year, after the Guild challenged that and an arbitrator agreed, the Council nixed the legislation. Advocates say the current police contract, and that dispute in 2010, have kept the city from expanding the ombudsman's powers. They hope this time around the Guild will agree to give the ombudsman investigatory powers, or at least to a contract that doesn't prevent the city from granting those powers through city ordinance.

"I'm excited," Burns says about calls for the city to expand his office's powers. "I think the time is now."

Spokane Police Chief Frank Straub says he supports strong civilian oversight and believes the ombudsman's office can help illuminate the department's efforts to improve police service. He welcomed the Center's proposed ordinance today, saying he hopes to work with city and law enforcement officials to develop the best possible version of a new policy. 

"I think [the Center's] recommendation is very thoughtful," Straub says. "I think it advances the conversation considerably, but I think there's more that we have to decide before we put a final period at the end of the sentence of what the ombudsman will look like." 

The city and the Guild don't discuss ongoing contract negotiations. Center for Justice Director Rick Eichstaedt says he hasn't heard about specifics of the negotiations, but he's hopeful the city won't approve a contract that doesn't allow them to extend the ombudsman's powers.

"We think the time is right to get this discussion started," Eichstaedt says."Our hope with these negotiations ongoing is that somehow the door isn't closed."

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About The Author

Heidi Groover

Heidi Groover is a staff writer at the Inlander, where she covers city government and drug policy. On the job, she's spent time with prostitutes, "street kids," marriage equality advocates and the family of a 16-year-old organ donor...