Public pressure works: The city announced today that Spokane Mayor David Condon will extend the contract of Police Ombudsman Tim Burns until the end of the year. More here!
Tonight, the Spokane City Council will vote on a resolution calling on Mayor Condon to keep Tim Burns in the Police Ombudsman position at least until a plan is in place to fill the position for the next 3-year term and to remove the Police Guild’s influence in the selection process. Will you attend or send a message to make your voice heard?
Condon dismissed Burns, the first Police Ombudsman, without a plan to fill the critical position. From the Spokesman:
“If he’s gone in six weeks, we’ve got a huge gap as a community – I’d say for a minimum of six months,” Stuckart said. “We can’t afford to have a gap.”
… Sanders said this week that Condon was uncomfortable offering Burns a new contract because he and other leaders are planning to strengthen the oversight system and the job description for the position likely will change. Many on the council, however, hope that Burns is considered for the revamped position.
How it will change won’t be known until the Spokane Police Guild, which has fought the city in the past few years when officials proposed stricter oversight, agrees to any changes.
Our community needs an Ombudsman on the job every single day, especially as the landscape changes with the Zehm settlement, a new Guild contract, and the Use of Force Commission’s recommendations. Our city needs the knowledge base Tim Burns has built up, and people who have bad experiences with the police need a place to go to share their stories and request investigations.
In addition to retaining Burns until a plan is in place, Council President Stuckart calling for a change to clean up the selection process before the new ombudsman is picked, which PJALS, Center for Justice, and other groups have long been urging. The Spokesman-Review’s Editorial Board agrees:
Under the current ordinance, ombudsman candidates are winnowed by a screening panel that includes members of the police force. The mayor must pick from those candidates. This gives the agency being reviewed too much influence.
You can make your voice heard at City Council tonight at 6pm, or email the Council and Mayor here:
Mayor Condon: [email protected],
Council members: [email protected], [email protected], [email protected], [email protected], [email protected], [email protected], [email protected]
Here’s the press release from Council President Ben Stuckart from August 17, for more background:
Council Members, Citizens Call for Swift Changes after Police Ombudsman’s Dismissal
Members of the Spokane City Council and community organizations active in efforts to strengthen independent police oversight are advocating major changes in the wake of the Mayor’s decision not to extend the contract of police Ombudsman Tim Burns. As a result of the Mayor’s decision, Burns will be leaving his job at the end of October.
“One thing we’ve all been very clear about,” says Council President Ben Stuckart, “is that this is not the time for Spokane to be going backwards on police oversight. Granted, the Office of Police Ombudsman is not the office that the City Council and the Mayor want it to be. But the weaknesses in the office existed before we hired Mr. Burns and, considering the circumstances, Tim has been doing a remarkable job.”
Burns is Spokane’s first police Ombudsman and has been serving since 2009. In 2010 the council unanimously adopted an ordinance giving the office the robust independence that citizens had demanded. Those powers were withdrawn last fall in response to an arbitrator’s decision in response to a complaint filed by the Spokane Police Guild.
“Losing an effective Ombudsman at this juncture clearly shows that the City Council has to have more of a say in how decisions like this are made,” says Councilmember Amber Waldref. “The Council, at least as much as the Mayor, relies upon the Police Ombudsman to help us do our job in evaluating the professionalism and effectiveness of our police. This decision caught us by surprise and, regrettably, leaves us in a weakened position as we try to move forward in rebuilding public confidence in the city’s management of the police department.”
“Tim has done a great job with the Ombudsman office despite being under considerable constraints,” said Councilmember Jon Snyder. “He has worked hard to build trust throughout the community and was invaluable in helping us gather the research and outline needed reforms.”
“With the brilliant hire of Nancy Isserlis and the amazing resolution of the Otto Zehm case, I thought we were entering a new era,” says Spokane civic activist Mary Ann Murphy. “I am so disappointed with this decision to suspend the police ombudsman.”
Burns departure will inevitably force the city to confront one of the most controversial features of the City’s present Ombudsman ordinance: the section dealing with choosing the Ombudsman. As it stands, the process works through a screening committee in which Spokane’s police unions have considerable influence. Under the existing ordinance, the Mayor can only choose from among the candidates recommended by the screening committee.
“What that really means,” says Tim Connor of Spokane’s Center for Justice, “is that the City has to change the ordinance before it selects Burns’ replacement, because to select a new Ombudsman under the existing ordinance just won’t fly with either the council or the public. So, you have to ask yourself, how long are we now going to be without an Ombudsman?”
“Now more than ever as the landscape changes with the Zehm settlement, a new Guild contract, and the Use of Force Commission’s recommendations, our city needs the knowledge base Burns has built up, and people who have bad experiences with the police need a place to go to share their stories and request investigations,” said Liz Moore, Director of the Peace and Justice Action League. “Taking Mr. Burns out of the picture leaves a very big gap, and the Mayor hasn’t given any indication how those needs will be met.”
Says Council President Stuckart: “The bottom line is the Council is going to address this, and do so soon.”