In this week's issue, we have a story
on the lengthy, and increasingly bizarre, struggle to empower Spokane's Office of Police Ombudsman. Police accountability advocates have long pushed for independent investigative powers for the office, but the city's contract with the Spokane Police Guild hasn't allowed such powers, and negotiations over the last 21 months to establish the next contract have been completely confidential.
That has left advocates and city council members, who say they also favor stronger police ov
ersight, in an awkward and frustrating position. Councilman Steve Salvatori initially planned
to take matters into his own hands, sponsoring an ordinance to empower the ombudsman despite ongoing negotiations. (Earlier this year, the council passed the same thing as a resolution, urging the administration to bargain for such powers in a new agreement.) Then, the city announced
last week it has reached a tentative agreement with the guild (which remains confidential until a guild vote) and council members backed away from Salvatori's effort, saying Spokane Police Chief Frank Straub urged them to hold off. The vote Monday put off most of the significant changes to the ombudsman office, with frustrations further elevated by claims
from the Center for Justice that they've seen the tentative agreement and it does not include independent investigative powers for the ombudsman. The whole thing brought a somber tone to council chambers and plenty of public testimony.
First, council members had their say.
"I don't like the closed process," Salvatori said of negotiations. "I see no benefit to the closed process. I liken it to wandering around in a maze for a year and 10 months by yourself and coming around the corner and suddenly seeing somebody for the first time and you're saying, 'How did you get here?'"
He also responded vaguely to criticisms he says he's faced for sharing too much about the tentative agreement:
"If I've offended anybody this week with my decisions I take responsibility for them. I did the best I could to execute my duties as I saw them."
Councilwoman Nancy McLaughlin reaffirmed her support of expanded powers for the ombudsman, but voted for the amendment.
"It does not mean I want anything watered down. I want to say that I really want to bring the Police Guild into this with us for the rest of these last few weeks. I have assurances we will hopefully be able to do that, and if not we will continue to press forward and bring back even a strengthened ordinance beyond even what was recommended tonight."
Councilman Jon Snyder said he wanted to "remind folks of the enormity of what we're trying to do here."
"I think it's the future of police oversight in the state of Washington because we have the city of Seattle and we have every other city in the state. The city of Seattle can have an ombudsman with a citizens commission with full-time staff members and they can do an enormous amount of things that no other city in the state of Washington has the money and ability to do. That's why the ombudsman has been so important, because if the city of Spokane can do it and locate it in an individual with a small office and a manageable staff in conjunction with a citizen oversight committee maybe other cities in the state of Washington can do it too. … We are trying so hard to get this done."
One major fear causing hesitance to do too much — despite the public's February vote — is a potential complaint from the guild that changes to the ombudsman office constitute a change in officer working conditions, which could propel this fight to a state arbitrator and reduce the city's control over what happens in the end. Snyder paraphrased Straub's words to the council in warning them about such a complaint, adding a strangely ominous mention of involving the feds.
"The chief came to us this morning and said, 'You need to consider very carefully what you're putting forward tonight. I'm asking you to defer because I've had experience with these sorts of things before and I believe if we don't get the result we want, I can ask the Department of Justice to step in and help get us there.' … Our police chief has said in no uncertain terms to us today that he is willing to go down that road if we can't get what we want or if we can't get to meaningful oversight."
(Since the meeting, we've asked Snyder for clarification: If the tentative agreement provides independent investigations, why would DOJ involvement be on the table? Does this mean the agreement doesn't extend those powers to the ombudsman? But, while Snyder has seen the agreement, he refused to answer in specifics because it remains confidential.)
Council President Ben Stuckart called getting a tentative agreement a "huge win."
"Two people very, very close to this whole situation made it very clear to me in the last few days that if we passed the big [ordinance] tomorrow morning an unfair labor practice [complaint] would be filed and the TA would be put on ice, so that means we wouldn't even get to talk about the tentative agreement and it potentially goes to an arbitrator and some arbitrator in Olympia decides what the final language is for us all. Me — I want to discuss, in not a closed room, what that final product is and if we should vote on that final product or not."
He then set out a timeline:
- Councilmembers McLaughlin, Salvatori and Snyder will start working with city legal and Straub to craft an ordinance implementing oversight that squares with the tentative agreement and with the city charter
- Once the agreement is voted on by the guild, which he expects to be later this month, police accountability advocates can join that discussion
- An ordinance should be done by Nov. 11
- Then, the city will hold three public meetings, with hopes to vote on the agreement and the ordinance by the end of the year
- The OPO Commission — the only thing set in motion by this week's vote — will be in place by January
Councilman Mike Allen, the only one to vote against "gutting" the ordinance, spoke with the skepticism many advocates have in light of previous efforts.
"Now, right before the vote is to happen tonight, we get word late last week that there is a tentative agreement with the guild contract. My struggle is this whole 'Wait, wait' thing. I've seen it before. I saw it in the last administration. 'Oh wait we'll get you taken care of. We'll make sure it's taken care of.' And it didn't get taken care of, frankly. In some ways it weakened the ability for independent oversight for a police ombudsman office. So therefore I struggle. My vote is not against the guild or the chief or anything else. It's because I'm probably a bit jaded because I want to do what the citizens have asked us to do."
Deeper under the issue here is the question of whether the city should be negotiating over oversight at all. During public testimony, Center for Justice Director Rick Eichstaedt and local civil rights attorney Breean Beggs, who represented the Zehm family in their civil case
against the city, brought up some of the legal questions surrounding the issue. Both the language now in the city charter
and in Salvatori's original ordinance mandated that anything regarding oversight that conflicted with the current guild contract be postponed until a new agreement is reached. (That agreement, however, must include independent oversight, according to the charter amendment.) So, they say, the original ordinance could have been passed without violating the guild contract. In a similar argument in Seattle the state Public Employment Relations Commission ruled
that oversight efforts there did not have to be bargained for. Spokane's city attorneys have disputed
the relevance of that case.
"It's really, really important, and we know that and we get that," Beggs said of independent oversight. "And if I'm disappointed with anything in the last hours, days, weeks, it's that we've become a little bit divided. Not in our intent but we have been. And if you want to know why we haven't gotten this in all these years it's because we've allowed ourselves to become divided."
In all, public testimony lasted nearly an hour.
Ed Byrnes, an Eastern professor who is helping the police department begin to track racial data
about its interactions, said he was "discouraged."
"You have to understand folks are very, very tired of waiting. What's different now than in past times when we've capitulated to the guild's threats and the guild's litigation is that the citizens of Spokane, the voters of Spokane, have spoken in a very unambiguous way about what we want. I truly truly hope that if this amended ordinance passes, that it really will come to pass, that this council will not vote to ratify a contract that does not include all of Proposition 1. The city administration has historically acquiesced to the guild. There's almost kind of this complicity situation between the guild and a lot of the city administration. That leads a lot of us to a point of cynicism and we're really putting our faith in you, if you're going to pass this amended ordinance, that we won't be back in a situation where this historical acquiescence to the guild and their threats and their foot-stomping continues. Please, please do the right thing."
Former councilman Bob Apple chided the council for passing the amendment.
"I've seen the stall tactics. This is exactly what we've been through before. Tenth hour — 'Oh we have a way to fix it all.' No there isn't. It's a stall tactic. It's not going to fix anything, and when you're done you're going to have a guild contract that mimics the last one. … I hope you'll just enact what the public asked you to do and all the other verbiage is simply not true. And you don't have an agreement with the guild. You don't even have an offer. You have some trumped up idea of an offer that hasn't come before you for approval. You approve deals. You don't sidestep. What they're trying to do is what they did before and that is to get you in a position of negotiating in the contract so that if they don't get what they want they can appeal … and then you're in the hook like you were before."
Peace and Justice Action League Executive Director Liz Moore said she's hesitant to be too hopeful about the process going forward.
"I will do my best to encourage community participation, but every round of bad process makes my work to increase community engagement more difficult and makes people more skeptical and less trusting that any government process can work to the benefit of everyday people. So it's got to be for real this time. It's got to be for real."