Roughly a month after Spokane's ombudsman commission — a five-member board intended to provide civilian oversight of city police — filed a formal complaint with Mayor David Condon alleging that the police department was interfering with the panel's work, the issue remains unaddressed.
This has prompted some members of the Office of the Police Ombudsman (OPO) Commission to consider legal action in the courts to force SPD to cooperate with them.
"If the OPO Commission at some point feels that we have to take legal action, I don't think we're reluctant to do that," Ladd Smith, chair of the commission, tells the Inlander. "That may have to happen."
The recent spats between the police department and the city oversight body stretch back months, but came to a head in mid-November. In a scathing Nov. 13 letter against Spokane Police Chief Craig Meidl, the OPO commission argued that the department had violated city law and engaged in "continuous interference" with the "independence" of the OPO. The ombudsman, whose office was established in 2008, reviews police internal investigations of citizen complaints over alleged misconduct to make sure that the reviews are rigorous.
Specifically, the commission cited the law enforcement agency's refusal to both provide case files on use-of-force incidents against people of color and grant ombudsman staff access to investigatory files compiled by internal affairs.
In response, Mayor Condon promised an investigation into the commission's complaint conducted by the human resources department and the city attorney's office. However, both Condon and Chief Meidl maintain that the issues raised by the commission should be worked out in the ongoing negotiations between the city and the Spokane Police Guild for a new contract. (The last police contract expired in 2016.)
"These issues are tied to current collective bargaining that is under way with the Spokane Police Guild," Condon wrote to the commission on Dec. 4. "I am hopeful that many of these items will be resolved through the contract negotiation process."
But for both the commissioners and Police Ombudsman Bart Logue, the city's holding pattern is frustrating. Citing a 2013 measure that strengthened the oversight powers of the ombudsman and established the citizen commission to oversee investigations into police misconduct — that voters overwhelmingly approved — they argue that city law and the previous police contract already grant them broad authority and that their requests shouldn't be tabled while the contract negotiations are ongoing.
"In the last six to eight months it seems like more and more walls are going up and [there's] less and less cooperation," Smith says. "It seems to be that the guild is using these negotiations as a reason to not do anything."
Chief Meidl tells the Inlander that, last summer, staff in the city attorney's office requested that the issues raised by the commission with the police department get resolved in the contract negotiations. "The city folks have asked if we can please have this as part of negotiations," he says. "I am honoring the request to fold these [issues] into ongoing negotiations.
"The OPO commission and the OPO doesn't have to be concerned about labor law to the extent that I do," Meidl adds. "All of these [issues] fall under some level of negotiations."
Another sticking point between the department and its civilian oversight body involves an internal affairs case that Logue has refused to sign off as complete. Back in August, a participant in a July protest in Spokane against Republican Congresswoman Cathy McMorris Rodgers filed a citizen complaint about the demeanor of an officer present at the event. Logue initially refused to certify the department's internal investigation into the complaint — which found no misconduct on the officers part — arguing that they only interviewed the complainant (as opposed to, for example, also interviewing witnesses).
Eventually, the ombudsman commission sided with Logue and moved to send the complaint back to SPD for further investigation on Nov 13. In response, the Spokane Police Guild fired off a grievance letter to Chief Meidl, alleging that city is violating its previous collective bargaining agreement by allowing the commission to request that the department conduct an additional investigation into the summer protest incident. Additionally, the letter calls on the city to prevent the ombudsman from conducting his own investigations of the incident.
Meidl says that the additional review is also on hold, pending a huddle with the department's legal counsel on how they should proceed and what the ordinance actually requires them to do.
"I don't want to call it semantics, but I think there is a disagreement over what is an 'investigation'," Meidl says. "What are we obligated to do?"
In response to requests for comment, city spokeswoman Marlene Feist points to the ongoing city investigation into the concerns raised by the ombudsman commission. "The mayor will be able to address these kinds of questions once that review is completed, and we have a full understanding of the concerns being raised and a legal review," Feist writes in an email.
As for whether Mayor Condon will order SPD to reinvestigate the citizen complaint from the summer protest incident, Fiest writes: "In this era of unprecedented oversight of the Spokane Police Department by the OPO, demeanor complaints are appropriately under the purview of the chief to determine the best way to investigate. The mayor will not intervene."
For ombudsman commissioners, the spat over the protest incident is yet another example of SPD stalling oversight efforts. "It's so symbolic of [SPD] not taking it seriously and not going through the proper protocol to try and do the right thing," says Smith, OPO Commission chair.
Both Ombudsman Logue and Smith say that the city legal counsel for the OPO office has been reluctant to throw legal elbows on behalf of the office out of concern of jeopardizing the ongoing contract negotiations. "City legal on the OPO side seems reluctant to want to do anything other than lip service," Smith says. "No action ever comes."
On whether the ombudsman commission will pursue legal action through its own legal counsel, Smith says that it "could be a couple months" before any concrete decisions are made.
"We don't want to wreck processes either," Logue says of the contract negotiations. "But we also don't want to give up our right and the authorities granted to us in the ordinance."
Breean Beggs, a Spokane City Council member and local defense attorney, says that the city needs to clearly define what is and is not allowed under the current civilian oversight ordinance and act on it. "The city is going to have to decide whether they want to follow the plain language of their ordinance and risk a complaint [from the Police Guild] or just indefinitely put it on hold," Beggs says. "That's a decision the city needs to make." ♦