Spokane’s City Charter is clear: The police ombudsman should have the authority to conduct independent investigations. Yet, nearly 13 years after the Office of the Police Ombudsman was created, the ombudsman’s powers are severely hampered by parameters dictated by the Spokane Police Department and its officers union, the Spokane Police Guild.

Spokane’s Office of the Police Ombudsman, or OPO, was set up in October 2008, after more than two years of pressure, debate, and outcry. The incident that most galvanized the community around this issue was the death of Otto Zehm in March 2006. Zehm died after being Tasered and beaten by police officers inside a North Spokane convenience store. Zehm, who was white and developmentally disabled, was unarmed at the time, and police erroneously suspected him of theft. Zehm’s death sparked outrage and calls for change in the police department’s handling of officer misconduct. The OPO was created to provide civilian oversight of the department in such cases.

Before voting to establish the OPO, the City Council had to negotiate the terms of the office with the Spokane Police Guild. And with every new contract, the guild must sign off on the ombudsman’s proposed powers. The ombudsman’s office, meanwhile, has no say in the terms of the contract. Additionally, the ombudsman is selected by a five-member committee, two of which are appointed by the Spokane Police Guild, and one selected by the first four appointees. This gives the guild even more say in how the ombudsman functions.


A Promise of Independent Review

In 2013, 70 percent of City of Spokane voters approved an amendment to the City Charter to add sections creating a Police Ombudsman Commission and an Office of the Police Ombudsman. The City Council approved the City Charter amendment later that year. This firmly establishes a citizen ombudsman within Spokane’s system of government.

The OPO’s mission is “to promote public confidence in the professionalism and accountability of the members of the Spokane Police Department by providing independent review of police actions, thoughtful policy recommendations and ongoing community outreach.”

The ombudsman is responsible for reviewing citizen complaints of police misconduct and forwarding those complaints to the Police Department’s Internal Affairs division. The City Charter states that the ombudsman also provides recommendations to policymakers on improvements to police procedure, training, and investigations, and “reassure(s) the public that investigations into complaints and allegations of police misconduct are conducted in a timely, thorough, and objective manner.”

From the outset, there has been pressure from the public and from city leaders to increase the ombudsman’s powers–in particular, giving the ombudsman the authority to independently conduct investigations and to issue closing reports, which summarize a case and outline the ombudsman’s recommendations.

The City Charter states that “the police ombudsman and any employee of the OPO must, at all times, be totally independent.” It also says that “The City shall not enter into any collective bargaining agreement that limits the duties or powers of the OPO as set forth in Section 129 unless such limitation is required to comply with existing federal or state law,” and that “the OPO shall independently investigate any matter necessary to fulfill its duties.”

But under the current Police Guild Contract, the OPO is only able to conduct independent investigations under a few specific circumstances: if the Police Department declines to open an investigation into an incident that the Police Ombudsman Commission believes merits review, or if the commission believes a department investigation was inadequate. This is far from the total independence guaranteed in the City Charter.

The current Police Guild contract, which was approved in March 2021, dedicates 15 pages to what the OPO can and cannot do. Under the agreement, the ombudsman can publish closing reports, but with some major caveats: the report can’t reveal the identity of Police Department members involved in a complaint, and it can’t comment on officer discipline or lack thereof. Additionally, closing reports can’t be used to reopen cases or determine officer discipline, and they can’t speculate on whether an officer violated department policy or broke the law. A closing report won’t be considered an official determination of what occurred, but an independent opinion. The Guild’s contract also allows the department to review reports before they are published, and to file grievances if the Guild thinks a report contains a contract violation. These restrictions clearly undermine the independence of the OPO.


Demand Change

SCAR’s Platform for Change demands that the OPO be empowered to conduct independent investigations and publish public closing reports. The OPO must be free to conduct these independent investigations without fear of reprisal by the Police Guild. An ombudsman who can only investigate under limited conditions, and whose reports are subject to Guild approval before publication cannot effectively serve the community as an independent civilian watchdog.

Our mayor oversees the ombudsman’s office and has a duty to make sure the Police Guild contract is in compliance with the City Charter. Call Mayor Nadine Woodward’s office at 509.625.6250 to demand a fully empowered and independent police ombudsman.