Issues to watch: Will the ombudsman's role include authority to independently investigate complaints? Will the ombudsman have access to documents shielded by attorney-client privilege? And will the office be established in a year with a projected $4.5 million general fund shortfall?
The Spokane City Council this week begins in earnest the final stages in the nearly two-year-old process to create an Office of Police Ombudsman (OPO).
On Monday, the council filed ordinance C34302 to create the office and officially repeal the city's defunct Citizen Review Commission. A council study session on the ordinance is scheduled for today (Sept. 11) at 3:30 pm in conference room 2B on the second floor of City Hall. People are invited, but no testimony will be taken. And next Monday will be the first reading of the ordinance when the City Council holds a town hall-style meeting at the Northeast Community Center.
The first chance of a public hearing is likely to be at the Sept. 22 council meeting. Council President Joe Shogan has promised the opportunity for a thorough public discussion but also says it's important to get the ordinance in place.
Police oversight became a high-profile issue in Spokane after the March 2006 death of mentally disabled janitor Otto Zehm while in police restraints, and a rash of other incidents that reflected poorly on law enforcement.
"We've had a lot of comment on this already. I don't want another year of comment; I want to get going. I want to get something in place that is well thought out, and this is," Shogan says.
The bones of the ordinance come right from the collective bargaining agreement reached in spring between police brass and the officers' union, the Spokane Police Guild. The agreement, reached after more than a year of negotiation, was instantly criticized as "ombudsman lite" by critics who point to a list of perceived ills, foremost the lack of an ombudsman's independent investigative authority.
Two Northwest ombudsmen say such authority is important to creating public trust that the new office will be independent and not just a rubber stamp for police. Sam Pailca, former police ombudsman for Seattle hired by Police Chief Anne Kirkpatrick to make recommendations on a Spokane ombudsman, listed such authority in her report. Boise police ombudsman Pierce Murphy, whose office is often held up as a model for civilian police oversight, has said the same.
Breean Beggs, attorney with Spokane's Center For Justice, has taken a step back from the fist-shaking. There's a risk, he says, that too much noise and heat over the issue could stall progress by making police reluctant to buy into new procedures if it is seen as an admission the old ones were wrong. And some critics seem only to want to force police "into admission they were wrong," Beggs says.
This sort of polarizing isn't productive, he says.
"After looking back and reflecting, our view is we don't want the ombudsman to be involved in discipline, that's for the chief," Beggs says. Instead, he points to a wider scope of the ombudsman office monitoring police practices and policies.
"Our theory all along is as long as we shine some light, everything will get better," Beggs says. Police have already begun to revise practices in the aftermath of Zehm's death, Beggs adds.
"Probably the biggest one they need to recognize is that a lot of people causing problems for them are people suffering from mental illnesses ... and not someone who just wants to break the law," Beggs says. "Second is the whole way they use force. The old school is to overpower with overwhelming force and hurt them until they complied. Our research shows that best practices in law enforcement now say don't engage people in combat unless you absolutely have to. Instead, group up around them and wait for them to calm down. Cities that have adopted this report fewer instances of police officers getting hurt, fewer civilians getting hurt and fewer complaints."
Fair labor law has been one of the stickier patches in creating an ombudsman office. Where is the line between a change in work conditions (that requires collective bargaining under state law) and administrative decisions in how the office is run?
Another potentially sticky issue is a paragraph in the proposed ordinance prohibiting the ombudsman from access to legal documents that relate to attorney-client privilege -- say, a city attorney's advice to an officer who is under investigation after a complaint.
Despite potential bumps, the consensus among council members is to have an ombudsman in place by the end of the year and see if any tweaks regarding duties and authority are needed after a year.
Shogan, though his metaphor may be mixed, makes a clear point that the ombudsman is important even in tight financial times: "I will fight tooth and tongs to get this through. We have to get this going."