615 days, Plus One

Spokane’s new police oversight commission is finally seated, and launches its first key challenge to the City’s police department.

Tim Connor
As of this morning, it’s actually been 616 days since Spokane voters approved Proposition 1, an amendment to the city charter that was supposed to require independent investigations of citizen complaints against police officers.

Commission member Pastor Debra Conklin, who chaired last night's meeting.
Commission member Pastor Debra Conklin, who chaired last night’s meeting.

It hasn’t quite turned out that way.

Prop. 1 required an ordinance to implement it. And, as I’ve reported previously, the ordinance (passed on February 10th of this year) was used to gut the charter amendment’s central requirement. Rather than shifting the responsibility for investigating citizen complaints to the Office of Police Ombudsman, the ordinance ensured that this pivotal duty will remain with the Spokane Police Department’s Internal Affairs unit.

The Spokane Police Guild was placated. And voters were given what amounted to a consolation prize—a five member citizen commission that would oversee and direct the paper tiger that the OPO has become. This is the Office of Police Ombudsman Commission, and it met for the first time last night, in the city council briefing room at City Hall.

Recently, however, a significant crack has developed between Police Chief Frank Straub and Ombudsman Tim Burns.  Since he was hired in 2009, Burns has a solid record of certifying SPD-IA investigations, including use of force investigations which, during this period, have ALL exonerated or failed to find fault with SPD officers. Literally in every instance.

But, as I reported in late August, tensions between the OPO  and the new leadership of SPD Internal Affairs led to a high-profile dispute between Burns and Straub over the summer. The case involved a May 1 incident in which a motorist received a cut on his forehead after being yanked from his car and taken to the ground by an SPD officer.

The driver filed a complaint with the OPO—a complaint all but designed to illustrate how toothless the OPO watchdog remains. As a routine matter, the OPO is actually not allowed (despite Prop. 1) to investigate complaints filed with the OPO. Instead, the complaint was forwarded, per the ordinance, to SPD-IA.

Not only did SPD-IA choose not to investigate the use of force complaint, or even create a use of force report, but Burns received a sharp rebuke from Straub on July 14th after he’d complained about the lack of action.

At the time, there was nothing Burns could do once Straub backed up IA.

But now there is. And Burns, to his credit, didn’t drop the issue, although he easily could have.

Under the new ordinance, there is a nine-step dance among the OPO, the police department, and the OPO Commission that has to take place before a complaint can be independently investigated. Nine steps. Moreover, the OPO can “certify” an SPD-IA investigation as “timely, thorough, and objective” and still not agree with the conclusions of the investigation. Once an SPD-IA investigation is “certified” by the OPO–even if the OPO disagrees with the conclusions–there can be no independent investigation of the complaint by the OPO.

The greatly watered-down ordinance creates a convoluted pathway that may conceivably lead to an independent investigation of this case. Near the end of the Commission’s first meeting last night, Burns tried to explain it to the five new commissioners: Scott Richter, Adrian Dominguez, Rachel Dolezal, Debra Conklin, and Kevin Berkompas.

Under the new ordinance, the Commission has the authority, if it agrees with the Ombudsman, to overturn Straub’s decision and force SPD-IA to do an investigation into the complaint. If the SPD-IA investigation is not satisfactory to the OPO and the Commission, paragraph 4.32.030 (F) of the ordinance gives the Commission the option of directing Burns “or a third party investigator” to complete the investigation—but only if the Chief has already made a final disciplinary decision in the case. In other words, the final investigation involving the OPO or a third party investigator cannot be used to revisit the Chief’s disciplinary decision.

“It’s a relatively simple ask, I believe,” said Burns last night.

“If they (the SPD) move forward it could ultimately change the outcome of the investigation, or the OPO’s position on it,” he continued. “And if they decline, well, at that point we’ll have to have a followup conversation about what the will of the Commission is.”

The Commission voted unanimously to have Burns write another letter to the Chief, registering the Commission’s objection.

And, actually, under the new ordinance, SPD-IA has no choice but to do the investigation that is now going to be requested by the Commission. Whether they do it well enough to satisfy Burns and the Commission is another matter. If they don’t, that’s when the Commission would (finally) have the option of pursuing an independent investigation—assuming, of course, that the Chief certifies his final disciplinary decision in advance.

It seems preposterous that this is the way—the only way really—that a citizen complaint filed with the OPO would actually get investigated by the Ombudsman. But that’s what became of Proposition 1. (While there is a move afoot to have three recent fatal shootings by the police independently investigated by the OPO, it’s not yet clear whether the OPO and or the Commission will have the authority to do so. I’ll report on this at a later date.)

Still, you have to admire Deb Conklin’s pluck. The Spokane pastor (who was asked by her fellow commissioner’s to chair last night’s meeting) showed up with a slightly dog-eared sticker on the back plate of her laptop computer. “Independent Investigations, Nothing Less” it reads.

The backlog of issues the Commission is now forced to take on is formidable. The most pressing, according to the Commission members, is a decision about whether to re-appoint Burns to another three year term. That decision has been kicked down the road twice already by the City Council which, understandably, wants the new commission to exercise its new role in that process.

Still, there will be a rush. After a motion was made by Commissioner Berkompas to extend Burns’s tenure for another year, Assistant City Attorney Mike Piccolo politely interrupted, twice, to remind the Commission that it shouldn’t vote on items that are not on its publicly distributed agenda.

Thus, the plan now is to take up the issue of whether to grant Burns another three year term at the Commission’s next meeting, Tuesday, November 4th, where public comment will be accepted. (None was permitted last night, and the Commission expects to have “working” meetings in the near future at which it will reserve its right not to take public comment, in the interests of time.)

If the Commission is not prepared to vote on Burns’s reappointment on November 4th, the backup plan would be to schedule that vote for Wednesday, November 19th.

fog & balesslice

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