Groaning Toward Dawn

The June 21st council meeting spilled well into Tuesday morning without a vote on a new police oversight ordinance. But the city’s new draft would actually begin to deliver a measure of independence for the police department’s embattled watchdog agency.

When dozens of Spokane citizens marched in unison into the council chambers in City Hall shortly after 6 o’clock Monday evening they were trying to send a message. Their body language was supposed to communicate that people are deeply committed to independent police oversight and won’t stop making demands on City Hall until they receive it.  Six and a half hours later, it appeared the Spokane council had gotten the message.

But time will tell. Despite all indications that the council planned to adopt a new ordinance Monday night, they didn’t. They instead voted, at 12:45 this morning, to continue their hearing on a new proposed ordinance until next Monday, June 28th. The decision followed yet another contentious hearing in which a long-line of public testifiers tried to pull their city government across the finish line of police oversight reform. It didn’t quite happen. But amid the confusion (including the expected gavel pounding and lectures on decorum by Council President Joe Shogan) an interesting thing happened: the city council clearly indicated it was now willing to move off a longstanding (and seemingly intractable) position that has kept the Ombudsman from having independent authority to investigate citizen complaints. That the council is being dragged along by public opinion (and against the wishes of the city’s lawyers) is painfully obvious. Yet, it’s still clearly movement in the direction that the coalition of police oversight reform advocates have been urging upon the council for over three years now.

The change can be seen in the difference between the draft of the new proposed ordinance that was shared with the coalition on Saturday by councilwoman Amber Waldref, and one that was circulated late Monday night. The council voted almost immediately to bring the new version to the floor for debate.

This new version of the reform ordinance lays out (albeit with some as yet unclear restrictions) a role for the city’s Office of Police Ombudsman to independently initiate investigations into citizen complaints at the time those complaints are received. This is not a power the office currently has. Presently, the OPO can only monitor police department internal affairs investigations and make decisions to certify or not certify the adequacy of these internal SPD investigations.

If the council votes to adopt the substance of the new version it would at least begin to create a new path for the OPO, so that in addition to overseeing SPD internal investigations, the office could conduct its own inquiries and issue separate reports for public use. An animated exchange between VOICES Executive Director Kiondra Bullock and councilman Jon Snyder (and Shogan) did reveal some confusion about how the OPO would proceed along two tracks at once (reviewing SPD IA investigations, while at the same time doing the independent inquiries necessary for the OPO to issue its own reports). Yet, the fact that there’s any confusion on this issue illustrates the extent to which the city is now at least trying to respond to heightened pressure from the coalition to give the OPO the independence the office needs to credibly respond to citizen complaints.

Whether the city council is trying hard enough has, itself, become a burning controversy. The council got an earful from several public testifiers Monday night (and Tuesday morning) about the seeming absurdity of floating  last minute drafts and changes to important legislation needed to address a problem that most critics can track back two decades or more. People waited more than four hours to testify Monday night, and then found themselves in the rather preposterous position of having to testify on key provisions to a new draft ordinance that most hadn’t even had a chance to read. It didn’t help matters, noted David Brookbank, that the city’s Mayor and Police Chief left the council chambers for the night just as the council took up the matter.

We hope to have more on these developments and last night’s council meeting later in the week. But right now the news desk needs to go to sleep.

–CFJ

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