The Ombudsman & the Police Union
Community Support/Action needed: Office of Police Ombudsman Commission meeting
Tuesday, July 16, 2019 at 5:30 PM – 7:30 PM
Spokane City Council Chambers, W. Spokane Falls Blvd
Is the City of Spokane Police Department accountable to elected government or is it an independent quasi-military organization that passes judgment on itself?
The Spokane Police help keep us safe and secure, but we should all be uncomfortable with a Police Department/Police Guild that consistently resists existing mechanisms of civilian government oversight. As citizens, this issue demands our attention.
The immediate issue on the table tomorrow evening (Tuesday) at the Office of Police Ombudsman Commission meeting (for details see above) is the resistance of the Spokane Police Guild to accepting oversight established by city ordinance. The City of Spokane Police Ombudsman's is stymied by the Police Guild in a case of potential law enforcement excess brought to the Ombudsman's attention by a blogger and former cop, Brian Breen. This is exactly the sort of alleged incident the Office of Police Ombudsman is set up to handle. We are shirking our duty as citizens if we don't make it clear we disapprove of the Spokane Police being allowed to operate in the dark. This shouldn't be a partisan issue, but it has partisan overtones: If neither Mayor Condon (a Republican dressed in non-partisan clothing) as the chief of the executive branch of City government or Chief Meidl won't stand up to the Police Guild, we need a new mayor who will.
Shawn Vestal writes in a Spokesman article from June 30 entitled, Spokane Police Guild demand to exclude ombudsman from officer misconduct investigation should be rejected clearly:
The [Spokane Police] Guild, which represents officers in the Spokane Police Department, is demanding that the police ombudsman be kicked off an investigation into whether officers threatened to kill a suspect and hoisted a police dog into a car to attack the man. There’s body-cam video of the encounter, word of which has been dribbling out, and an ongoing internal affairs investigation.
The Office of Police Ombudsman was established in 2008 in the wake of the death of Otto Zehm (1970-2006), a developmentally disabled man beaten and suffocated to death by members of the Spokane Police in May of 2006 in a downtown convenience store. Otto's last words were "All I wanted was a Snickers Bar." The sordid story of the Zehm case, which you can review in summary and in detail here, involved a three month delay in the release of the convenience store video, elements of a coverup, the conviction of a police officer for the use of excessive force and for lying to investigators, and a civil suit costing the city 1.67 million dollars. Rarely has there been a clearer example of a need for civilian oversight. The Otto Zehm story is one we would all do well to revisit in current context.
There has been tension between the Office of Ombudsman and the City of Spokane Police Department/Police Guild ever since the Office was established in 2008. The work of the Office of Ombudsman was strengthened by the voice of the voters of the City of Spokane with the passage of Proposition 1 on February 12, 2013 with 67% of the vote and codified in resolution #2013-0033 passed unanimously by the City Council.
Even that public support did not settle the issue. As Shawn Vestal put it on December 12, 2018, in another column well worth your reading: "The Spokane Police Guild stands in the way at every turn, arguing that the demands of transparency and citizens oversight are but union bargaining issues – a strategy through which they continually attempt, often successfully, to block independent oversight."
The Police Guild and, apparently, Mayor Condon want to return to self-oversight, to the days before Otto Zehm. Especially, screamingly, now, in the day of an out-of-control national Executive wielding national police and military in defiance of civil outcry, it is important that we not lose sight of the local equivalent.
Come down the City Council Chambers tomorrow night and show your support for the Ombudsman. This is an issue we cannot afford to ignore. While you're at it, send a message to Mayor Condon and Chief Meidl that they need to assert themselves...and ask the mayoral candidates how they plan to approach this mess.
Keep to the high ground,
P.S. Elsewhere in Mr. Vestal's December 12, 2018 column, he refers to the Spokane Police Guild as a union. Interesting. "Guild" sounds like a quasi-governmental entity, something above the fray of contract negotiations and backroom intrigue. in fact, the Spokane Police Guild is a closed union, a very well armed union, a union whose members interact, sometimes in lethal ways, with the public on a daily basis. After decades of Republican/Libertarian propaganda demonizing unions, we need to call a spade a spade. The Spokane Police Guild is a union. Are we supposed to think the police are somehow above oversight because they have a bargaining unit called a "guild?"
Local Republicans (and national Republicans) are very careful with words. For another local example, read Empowerment or Entitlement?