Established relatively recently, the City of Spokane is served by a “Police Ombudsman,” Tim Burns, who first started work in the summer of 2009. This coming Monday, the City Council will decide whether to expand the Ombudsman’s powers by allowing actual independent investigative authority. The Spokane Police Guild says it will challenge any expansion of the Ombudsman’s ability to look into complaints.
What is an “ombudsman”?
One question is; why aren’t the proposed powers there to begin with? The ordinance currently limiting the Ombudsman’s tools in checking up on police investigations is somewhat at odds with the common understanding of the very term denominating his job. According to Encarta® World English Dictionary ( 2009), “ombudsman” means:
“nongovernmental complaint investigator: somebody, especially a man, responsible for investigating and resolving complaints from consumers or other members of the public against a company, institution, or other organization”
The current bruhaha is over whether the Omsbudsman should be able to – – gasp – – do any actual investigation other than just looking over what the police internal affairs department decides to do. Proposed changes to allow the Ombudsman to go out and do his own investigations are before the City of Spokane Council Monday evening.
One nice step is that the Ombudsman has a public website. Here, you can 1) make a complaint, ask a question, or make a suggestion, 2) see the Ombudsman’s monthly reports and annual report, 3) see answers to frequently asked questions and background on the office. Check out the 2009 Annual Report. It’s in an easy to read format, as opposed to being presented in a jumble of technical statistics as are some other govenment reports. The reports says there were 78 complaints in 2009, but only 10 of those originated through the Ombudsman’s office
In 2009, 20 complaints investigated resulted in 22 members of the Spokane Police
Department receiving some level of discipline. The sanctions imposed by the Chief of
• 2 Terminations;
• 3 Suspensions;
• 9 Letters of Reprimand;
• 8 Employees Receiving Counseling.
“I am working to reach out to Spokane’s citizens in a variety of ways,” says Tim Burns, the Police Ombudsman. “The new web site provides another avenue for people to be heard.” Burns comments are posted in an article at SpokaneCity.org.
Current ordinance setting the limits on the Ombudsman
The law defining the powers of Tim Burns is set forth in Chapter 4.32 of the City of Spokane Ordinances.
The part at the very heart of this issue is in section 4.32.030, which states in part that the Office of the Police Ombudsman ” will not conduct independent disciplinary investigations … .” Compare that to the very definition of “ombudsman” set forth above.
Good police officers ought to welcome outside review, and maybe their images won’t be tarnished by the minority among them who can’t seem to mind their p’s and q’s. It’s frustrating to be the subject of a complaint when you haven’t done anything wrong, but this is a department serving a democracy, and that requires truly independent review. On the other hand, the complaint process should be used responsibly, not to vex an officer when the complainant is the one who is in the wrong. It should be a balanced process.
Would those opposing expanded investigative powers for the Ombudsman prefer that he wear blinders when reviewing police actions?