Local News

Voters to decide future of Spokane police oversight

SPOKANE, Wash. - Prop One, would mark a new era in police oversight in Spokane, a measure that would amend the city's charter by establishing an office of police ombudsman and a police ombudsman commission.

The kicker to Prop One, which will be voted on by Spokane residents in a special election next month, will be that the ombudsman will be able to investigate concerns independently from the Spokane Police Department.

Right now, Police Ombudsman Tim Burns has limited authority; he can only investigate using what the police department's internal affairs division has already compiled. There has been a back and forth between the city and the police guild in recent years to change that and now Spokane city councilman Steve Salvatori says it's time to let the voters decide.

Historians will look back at 2006 as a turning point in the relationship between Spokane's police department and many of its citizens, when the lives of Otto Zehm and Karl Thompson intersected in a North Division Zip Trip convenience store trust and accountability in the Spokane Police Department went on trial.

Prop One

In the years since, Spokane has struggled to regain that trust. Karl Thompson tried and convicted of using excessive force. Soon after Mayor David Condon took office a settlement was reached between the city and Otto Zehm's estate. Far before those two moments, Tim Burns was hired by the city during former Mayor Mary Verner's administration as an ombudsman, but ultimately his powers to investigate were limited.

Proposition One would change that.

"We've had mayors try to take the lead, we've had councils try to take the lead on this, we've had other police guild members try to take the lead. Everyone's had a say on this except for the citizen," Councilman Steve Salvatori said.

The special election gives voters that chance to change the city charter and set the course for the ombudsman's role. It's an idea supported by both the Center for Justice and Spokane Police Chief Frank Straub.

"We have this new alignment of the planets, where we have this new police chief, a new mayor, we have a new council, we've put the Otto Zehm settlement behind us, the Karl Thompson settlement behind us. We have a police guild that is open to looking at this," Salvatori said.

In fact, it's hard to find vocal opposition; no one stepped up to write the "No on Prop One" response in the voters guide.

The police guild has objected to increased oversight in the past; on Monday a spokesman said the guild won't comment because of ongoing contract negotiations.

Pass or fail, Salvatori said it's time for the citizens to decide.

"Whatever they decide, I'm OK with that. But, we wanted to give them the chance to speak instead of this side always having a say," he said.