Police Model

A Boise expert comes to Spokane to talk about police transparency.

The call for civilian oversight of the Spokane Police Department has been a drumbeat in city politics for nearly two years.

It is a passionate, even polarizing, drumbeat to remember mentally disabled janitor Otto Zehm, who died on a convenience store floor after fighting with police who -- wrongly -- suspected him of robbery.

Zehm's death and initial false statements from police cracked the sense of trust.

It was even worse in Boise a decade ago after seven police shootings in 23 months left eight people dead -- including an officer, Pierce Murphy told Spokane City Council members last week. The session in the basement of City Hall was packed with police brass, several city attorneys, the mayor and civic watchdogs.

A day later, Murphy made a similar presentation at CenterStage, an event attended by about 70 people.

In both appearances, Murphy, a trim man with a calm demeanor and reassuring voice, raised important details about an ombudsman's role and lowered the rhetorical heat.

Asked at CenterStage if the police union here has too much say in hiring an ombudsman, he appeared a little exasperated. "This is an oversight agency," he said. "I am not an avenging angel come down to smite evil."

Murphy, during his two days here, stressed that the ombudsman's role is to seek the truth behind complaints of police misconduct.

"I advocate for the truth of what happened. If people need to be commended, they are commended. If people need to be held accountable, they are held accountable," Murphy told council members.

His oversight of internal affairs investigations has made them better, he says, and his authority to conduct separate investigations has rebuilt police credibility in Boise, "investigation by investigation, report by report."

A key difference remains, however. Washington labor law, unlike Idaho's, requires collective bargaining on specific changes in working conditions. The city in April reached a "tentative agreement" with the Police Guild.

Guild members have not yet heard a presentation on the tentative agreement. (That is likely to happen May 28, Guild president Ernie Wutherich says.) Outside the department, some critics call the agreement "ombudsman lite" because it does not include separate investigative authority and allows police union members on a hiring committee.

More disturbing to Terri Sloyer, an attorney at the Center For Justice, is the mindset that the city council, when creating an ordinance for the ombudsman office, cannot change conditions in the tentative agreement without sending it back to bargaining.

Her view, shared by others, is that the bargaining covers the creation of the new office, but details of how the office runs is administrative and does not need to be bargained.

City Council President Joe Shogan says he is getting an opposite view from city attorney Mike Piccolo and is inclined to be cautious about changes to the tentative agreement.

Murphy, formerly president of the National Association on Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement (NACOLE), was clear that any ombudsman office must operate in its own political reality.

"It is important as a community that you have police oversight, and it is important that the police have the ability to negotiate parts of that," he said. "It sounds like there is some staking out of positions going on. All of us are reasonable people. Police officers have the same interests as you -- they want a safe community, to be treated with respect and to treat people with respect."