Police Guild Contract– Again

Tonight the Spokane City Council will vote on whether to approve the proposed contract between the City of Spokane and the Spokane Police Guild (i.e. the police union). The vote will mark yet one more step in a fourteen year battle to put the Spokane police under civilian oversight, a battle that started with the fatal beating of Otto Zehm by Spokane Police and the chilling salute with which members of the Guild honored their Guild brother convicted of the beating.

(This vote was supposed to occur two weeks ago, June 15th, the day I first wrote about it (Police Guild Contract Signing), but at that meeting the issue was tabled, that is, rescheduled for consideration at the meeting this evening.) 

Tonight the realities of governing intersect with public outrage, part of the ongoing national outrage over the murder of George Floyd by a policeman in Minneapolis.

I cannot find an article that defends the Police Guild contract. Most of the controversy focuses on “Article 27” the fourteen pages of the more than seventy page contract that deal with how the Office of Police Ombudsman interacts with the Police Guild. Article 27 is dissected in a devastating opinion piece by Shawn Vestal that appeared in the June 19 Spokesman. [I’ve linked and copied it below–it is worth your time to read.] If you have a subscription I also recommend Stacey Cowles’ Editorial “Send Spokane Police Guild contract back for more work

So now that most everyone agrees it is just plain wrong for the Police Guild to being dictating the terms of its own oversight, what is the best and surest way of getting rid of Article 27?

Well, if we could turn back the clock a bit, not electing a (Republican) Mayor, Nadine Woodward, a mayor (like her predecessor) with the endorsement and support of the union with which she promised to speedily negotiate a contract. Not electing David Condon Mayor of Spokane for two terms before Woodward might have been even better, since, according to Mr. Vestal, it was Mayor Condon who is responsible for the version of Article 27 that appeared in the previous contract, an article most think violates Section 129 of the Spokane City Charter, a charter section established by a vote of the people in 2013.

Since we cannot turn back the clock, understand this: The contract up for a vote tonight was negotiated by Mayor Woodward’s office without the input of the City Council. The Council cannot modify it. It can only vote yes or no. The contract covers the period 2017 to the end of this year, 2020. If the Council votes NO the contract is sent back and, at the discretion of the Guild, either is re-negotiated with Mayor Woodward’s office or [more likely] the contract is submitted for binding arbitration. Either process could take another year. During that time the Office of Police Ombudsman would continue to operate in a weakened condition under the rules negotiated by the previous mayor. By the time all that is worked out, the current awareness, outrage, and attention by the citizenry may have dissipated, may have moved on, for example, to the drama of this fall’s national election. 

If the Council votes NO, like most seem to be calling for, the rules of the game may dictate a less than satisfactory outcome as outlined in the last paragraph. What if the Council collectively swallows hard and votes YES? It’s a gamble. On the one hand, all those calling for major reform will be (at least initially) very unhappy. The Councilpeople voting YES will have a lot of explaining to do. A YES vote would give the Guild the raise it sought, a bargaining chip the City would have given up. BUT, with the current outrage at fever pitch there is a good chance that negotiation on the next–and presumably much improved–contract could be completed quickly and put in place January 1, 2021, that is, six months from now. This YES vote scenario, to make it happen, depends on good faith deals, promises, and trust, a commodity recently in very short supply. For the Council to vote YES to the contract on the table tonight would be a gamble that could backfire, but if it did not backfire the City of Spokane could have an unfettered Ombudsman’s Office by January 1, six months from now. 

This will be interesting to watch. What can we do? Keep up the outrage, add to the emails, letters, and speeches that call for throwing out Article 27, communications directed not just at the Council but at the Mayor and at the Guild–so the latter two know they cannot sweep this one under the rug. Few city issues have generated this much attention. We cannot let the attention be wasted. No matter which way the Council votes, it will be the final outcome that matters. Navigating governance to get the right result is tricky business. 

Keep to the high ground,

P.S. Understand, too, that several of the Councilperson’s histories suggest strong support for an independent, powerful Ombudsman. Breean Beggs, after all, represented the family of Otto Zehm in court. 

P.P.S. The opinion piece by Shawn Vestal referenced above:
It’s a long way from our city charter’s claims to our handcuffed system of police oversight

By Shawn Vestal 
(509) 459-5431

Section 129 of the Spokane City Charter is where the sunshine of optimism shines most brightly with regard to police oversight.

That section enshrines the authority of the ombudsman to “independently investigate any matter necessary” with regard to police complaints and to publish reports about its findings.

Clear and simple.

Article 27 of the city’s contract with the Spokane Police Guild, on the other hand, is where that independence goes to die.

The operations of the ombudsman office were subsumed into the last Guild contract by the Condon administration, and a new proposed contract would weaken the ombudsman’s independence further. Article 27 exists only because civilian oversight has been subsumed to the right of public union workers to collectively bargain over working conditions – and submitting to independent review of their actions is a working condition the cops just can’t get behind.

It will take state law to truly open the way for change on that front. I wrote about that earlier this week as one avenue toward rebalancing authority between citizens and police; today I want to emphasize another tool: sustained citizen pressure.

The past few weeks have taught us that when citizens raise their voices, they can effect change. If citizens and leaders in Spokane want to fulfill the promise of the city charter, they need to do more than wait for changes in state law, or blame the previous administration for its bad contract, or grumble or complain.

They need to raise hell about Article 27. They need to make everyone involved with it profoundly uncomfortable with it. They need to not let it persist quietly, an entrenched affront to the values in the city charter.

They are such simple, appealing principles, after all: Independent investigations. Public reports on the findings.

Here is how the proposed Article 27 claims to meet them.

Say a complaint about an officer whacking someone on the head with a nightstick comes in to the Office of the Police Ombudsman. Our ombudsman then decides if it should be sent to the Spokane Police Department’s Internal Affairs Division or referred for mediation with the chief of police.

In making that determination, our independent ombudsman “may,” according to Article 27, conduct a preliminary investigation, in which he or she would be allowed to interview the actual complainant and other witnesses “as reasonably necessary.”

(In addition to the rules about what happens to complaints that come to the OPO, Article 27 sets out that, when IA receives complaints directly, it will notify the ombudsman of those, as well as the opening of any criminal investigations into officers. IA will have 10 full business days to do so.)

If the ombudsman feels a complaint requires investigation, he will forward it to IA. With very few exceptions, everything that follows will proceed under the auspices of the IA process, to which the ombudsman is chiefly an observer. The chief will first decide if an IA investigation is warranted at all, or if some other, lower-level internal investigation is due.

If an IA probe is opened, the ombudsman will be notified and allowed to attend the interviews IA conducts and ask questions (though not do independent interviews), review evidence, and receive a copy of the case file when IA makes its determination.

If, on the other hand, no investigation is deemed warranted by the chief, and the ombudsman disagrees, he may appeal the decision to the chief. The chief’s decision on his earlier decision will be final.

At that point, the OPO may conduct its own limited investigation into the lack of an investigation and publish a limited report, though Article 27 won’t allow any police officer to be identified.

Now, if an IA investigation is completed, our ombudsman may review that investigation and determine only whether it was “thorough and objective.”

What, you may ask, happens if our independent ombudsman feels the complaint was not thorough, objective or otherwise investigated properly? First, he may ask IA for further investigation. If IA and the ombudsman disagree about the need for more investigation, the ombudsman may appeal to the chief, who will decide whether IA will conduct any further investigation.

If our independent ombudsman remains unsatisfied – having received a complaint about police conduct and forwarded it to IA; having accepted the final decision of the chief as to how the complaint will be investigated and sat in on the IA investigation that followed; and having asked for further investigation and been rebuffed by IA and the chief – a request may be made to the OPO Commission to approve its own investigation, so long as the case is a “serious matter” by the lights of Article 27.

Article 27 goes on to detail what kind of paperwork our independent ombudsman must keep regarding this request for an independent investigation, including a log of evidence that the ombudsman must provide “promptly” to IA. If the commission calls for more investigation, it must then provide IA an opportunity to complete the further investigation that it previously refused to do; if it does not, then and only then could our independent OPO conduct or order its own investigation.

Article 27 makes it clear that police officers would not have to comply with that investigation. It also puts blinders on what the ombudsman can tell the public after its work: A closing report may make policy recommendations, but may not identify any member of the department or even make reference to any discipline in the case.

Can you follow that? The conditions the Guild has been allowed to place on the ombudsman via this contract are a death grip on the charter’s call for independence. The current proposal adds a new layer of interference in the OPO’s independence, expanding the union’s authority to help choose the ombudsmen and members of the OPO Commission, and determine the terms of their service.

The City Council has balked at approving it; in a sane world, Article 27 would require massive revision, if not complete excision, before the contract is approved.

But we do not live in a sane world.

If you care about police accountability in Spokane, don’t forget Article 27.

And if you care about Article 27, say so.