Could the cover up that created the six-year long Otto Zehm controversy happen in Spokane again? Police Chief Frank Straub said no, and believes a new police oversight ordinance introduced by the mayor would pull the curtain back on future "Use of Force" investigations.
If you voted yes on Proposition One last February it's probably because you thought the police department covered up what turned out to be the use of excessive force against Zehm. Now the police chief and Mayor David Condon are pushing for a change in city law that would make it almost impossible for investigators to hide the truth in the future.
When Zehm was beaten with a night stick inside a Division Street ZipTrip convenience store, Spokane didn't have an ombudsman. If the same type of incident happened today, ombudsman Tim Burns would have sat in on Karl Thompson's internal affairs interview.
"Every interview that's conducted, the ombudsman is literally sitting right next to the Spokane Police sergeant overseeing that investigation. He can ask whatever questions he would like to ask during the interviews," Straub said.
The ombudsman would have also had access to surveillance video that showed Zehm did little to deserve the level of force used by Thompson
"He can say I want additional people interviewed, he can say we need this additional piece of evidence so in many ways the ombudsman truly affects the direction and ultimate outcome of all of our investigations," Straub said.
If the ombudsman felt the police department was trying to sweep the use of force under the carpet, Burns could take his concerns to the five citizens who will make up the ombudsman commission.
"If a situation occurred like that now mister burns or any other ombudsman would be able to go to the commission and say I'm not happy with what the police department's doing, I'm not happy with the direction the investigation's going. The commission could then order the police chief to change course," Straub explained.
The commission is also authorized to write and release an un-redacted report detailing its findings, so Spokane would have known Thompson acted outside the law and departmental policy in a matter months instead of years.
"I think this resolves the Otto Zehm issue, that we won't have these things that hang in space and time forever and ever, that the ombudsman and commission can move the process very quickly," Straub said.
The one thing this latest proposal doesn't do is allow the ombudsman to compel officers to answer his questions in the absence of police department representatives. That is something that current state labor law doesn't allow and why some people think the mayor's proposal still comes up short.