Are We Clear Yet?

Use of Force Commission emphasizes independent authority for Police Ombudsman.

Use of Force Commission Chairman Earl Martin with commission member Susan Hammond.
Use of Force Commission Chairman Earl Martin with commission member Susan Hammond.

In the midst of a deepening power struggle over civilian oversight of the Spokane Police Department, the Mayor’s Use of Force Commission is emphasizing the importance of independent investigatory authority for the city’s Office of Police Ombudsman. The Commission’s message is contained in an October 15th letter to the Mayor. It was obtained earlier this week via a Center for Justice public records request.

The Center for Justice shared the letter Thursday morning with U.S. Department of Justice officials who are initiating a review of Spokane police issues, including the role of the police Ombudsman.

“This is a welcome note of clarity from the Commission and it really underscores the message that Spokane voters sent earlier this year with Proposition 1,” says Center for Justice Executive Director Rick Eichstaedt. “It also directly disputes the suggestion, advanced by the mayor, that the Office of Police Ombudsman can be credible and effective without being empowered to independently investigate citizen complaints.”

The Commission’s letter flows from its first review of how the City and the Police Department are implementing the more than two dozen recommendations that the Commission presented to the mayor in February. The letter highlights three issues, and two of the three have to do with issues swirling around civilian oversight of the SPD.
Nine months ago, in February, the Commission recommended the City: “Invest the Office of Police Ombudsman with the authority and discretion to open and conduct independent investigations concerning the operations, actions or omissions of the SPD.”

In its October 15th letter, the Commission writes: “The Commission reiterates its position that an empowered and independent Spokane Office of Police Ombudsman would enhance trust between the SPD and the citizens it serves, provide support to conscientious and competent police officers, and improve the operations of the SPD.”

The Commission also used its letter to reiterate its earlier recommendation that the City “bring greater transparency to the City’s negotiations” with the City’s police unions. This relates directly to police oversight because the Spokane Police Guild has thus far succeeded in using closed-door contract negotiations with the City to put restrictions on the power of the OPO.

The powers of the Ombudsman directly relate to the broiling political dispute over whether Mayor Condon has been making a good faith effort to implement Proposition 1, which is now Article 16 of the City Charter. On November 11th, the Spokane City Council took the unusual step of suspending its rules so it could vote, immediately, to reject a new “tentative agreement” the mayor had negotiated with the Spokane Police Guild on a new collective bargaining agreement. In simple terms, the council didn’t accept Mayor Condon’s assertion that the “tentative agreement” complied with the Proposition 1 requirement to empower the OPO with independent investigatory authority.

In retrospect, it’s noteworthy that in his August 21st  response to the Use of Force Commission’s recommendation for independent investigatory authority for the OPO, the Mayor informed the Commission that its recommendation would be implemented via “Proposition 1, as approved by Spokane voters.”

The issue of the Ombudsman’s independence was a primary topic Thursday morning when Eichstaedt and members of the Center’s staff met with representatives of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS), and contractors working with COPS. The meeting was at the invitation of the Justice Department which is initiating a review of Spokane police performance in the areas of Use of Force Incidents, Use of Force Investigations, Departmental Culture, and Civilian Oversight.

–Tim Connor for the Center for Justice
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