Seizing the Moment (and the Podium)

In a move intended to show the depth of public commitment to police oversight, Spokane citizen groups take to City Hall to demand an independent Ombudsman’s office.

Just hours before city leaders were scheduled to host the top candidates for Spokane’s first police ombudsman Friday afternoon, an impressive line-up of Spokane citizen group leaders arrived at City Hall and made their ways down to the Chase Gallery. There, in the middle of the gallery was a single podium, in front of which was a solid line television news cameras and a squad of attending reporters.

On both sides of the cameras, the crowds illustrated the depth of the story. With Spokane and its police department unarguably enduring the worst crisis of public confidence in the city’s history, the question posed by the day’s events is whether Friday marked a turning point for the city’s credibility, or whether it still has a Liz Moore, leading off at Friday's City Hall press conference.ways to go.

Liz Moore, the new director of Spokane’s Peace & Justice Action League (PJALS) answered the question this way in her opening remarks:

“Today the city will introduce three finalists for the position of Police Ombudsman,” she began. “We are here today to say, ‘Mayor Verner and City Councilmembers, fix it before you fill it.’ For the Police Ombudsman to be credible and effective, the ombudsman has to be able to conduct investigations independently of the Spokane Police Department. Otherwise the whole position is a waste of time and a waste of money and will only deepen distrust between citizens and the police and the city itself. Even the best candidate for this position will be hamstrung and toothless without this authority and credibility.”

“We’ve seen this cycle in Spokane before. A horrible treatment of misconduct or racism, followed by righteous public outrage, followed by meaningless reform that is just a waste of time and money. We’re not going to accept it this time.”–Deb Abrahamson, SHAWL Society.

The key issue, as it was when the city announced its agreement with the police unions a year ago, and when it adopted the Ombudsman ordinance last fall, is whether the agreement and the resulting ordinance tie the Ombudsman too closely to the police department. Although the ordinance repeatedly stresses the independence of the office, its key sections actually give the Ombudsman no independent authority to investigate complaints against Spokane police officers. Rather, the Ombudsman must work with the department’s internal affairs investigators and either certify that the IA investigation is “thorough and objective,” or file a finding stating that it is not. Although the Ombudsman could appeal to both the police and the mayor to improve IA investigations of complaints, there’s no authority of last resort for the Ombudsman to take over the investigation separate from the police.

That’s not good enough for Liz Moore and PJALS and neither is it good enough for the event’s co-organizers from the SHAWL Society (a native American activist organization locally and nationally respected for its environmental justice work). The other organizations speaking out against the Ombudsman ordinance were the low-income advocacy group VOICES, the Spokane affiliate of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), and the Progressive Democrats of America. Two former 5th District Congressional Candidates were among the speakers. Lawyer Tom Keefe for himself and Bart Haggin on behalf of the Progressive Democrats.

But the first person that Moore introduced was Shonto Pete, the young Native American man who, two years ago, miraculously survived being shot in the head by off-duty Spokane police officer Jay Olsen. Olsen’s acquittal by a Spokane jury this winter touched a very raw nerve in the city’s Native American community whose leaders, in an emotional gathering with city officials in March, made very clear they were going to pursue reforms.  At least half the supporters who attended and held signs at the gathering today were Native American and one of them, Tsuts Poo (Agnes Broncheau), spoke on behalf of VOICES, for whom she is a board member.

Pete spoke briefly to encourage Spokane citizens to continue to speak out on the need for police reforms and attend a rally on June 25th for that purpose.

“One thing that I know is fear,” he said. “I’ve experienced fear first-hand. And when you’ve experienced that kind of fear, you don’t have to be afraid of anything else. So, I can tell you right now, don’t be afraid to stand up and express yourself and join our rally. Because we know what can happen when people stand together.”

As she quickly reviewed the recent history of the efforts to attain independent oversight of the Spokane Police Department, Moore held up copies of the so-called Pailca Report provided to the city two years ago, and the proposed ordinance that PJALS drafted in 2007 for the city’s consideration. She noted that both recommended “explicit authority” for the Ombudsman to independently investigate citizen complaints. The PJALS recommended ordinance, she said, was modeled on the “very successful Boise ordinance” that not only allows for independent investigations but encourages the office to independently evaluate and report on police practices.

“What we want is what Boise has,” Moore said. “What we want is what we deserve. And that cannot be too much to ask.”

Keefe, whose father represented police officers and worked closely with police unions in Seattle, stressed how important it was for police work to be conducted “in an atmosphere that enjoys the broad respect of the community that is being policed.”

He was sharply critical of city officials for adopting an ordinance that was missing “the basic elements” that an Ombudsman office needs to be effective.Shonto Pete

“What it does,” he says, “is put a veneer of responsibility and respectability on a process that is so inherently flawed, it can’t possibly do what is needed to restore citizen confidence in the police department.”

To which he added:  “I don’t believe that anyone in this city who cares about our police department, and cares about the vast majority of those men and women, decent people doing hard work under difficult conditions, sometimes life-threatening-THEY deserve, as much as the rest of the community–a process that will vindicate those who’ve done no wrong, and hold accountable those who have.”

Ron Anderson, speaking for NAMI, said his group supported the calls for a more independent office because of the “concerns and fears that people in Spokane have over the possibilities that they or their loved ones may be unduly harmed by police intervention during a psychiatric emergency.”

He said that the local NAMI affiliate has warmly welcomed police officers and police chiefs over the years and they are “always assuring us they are doing everything possible in the way of training, education, and investigation to properly handle psychiatric emergencies.” Thus, he continued, “the establishment of an independent ombudsman office would be a show of good faith by the department to show that this is true. We believe that having an independent ombudsman office would be a significant step forward in building and maintaining a trusting relationship.”

Deb Abrahamson of the SHAWL Society spoke last and returned to a theme that had been an emotional touchstone at the meeting with city leaders last March: the pattern of dousing public outrage and calls for reform with half measures that don’t effect the status quo.

“Today we are meeting because the ongoing miscarriage of justice is happening all too often here in Spokane. We’re witnessing case after case involving the Spokane Police Department’s questionable treatment of its citizens. We’re speaking out because of what happened to Shonto Pete and Otto Zehm, and because of all the other incidents and bad treatment that are families and friends and community members have experienced. We’ve seen this cycle in Spokane before. A horrible treatment of misconduct or racism, followed by righteous public outrage, followed by meaningless reform that is just a waste of time and money. We’re not going to accept it this time.”

–CFJ

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