SPOKANE -- The death of a mentally-disabled man taken into custody with excessive force in 2006 changed the way the City of Spokane monitors its police department.
In 2008, the city created the Office of the Police Ombudsman to examine complaints against the department. Tim Burns got the job, in part, because of his background as an officer and community activist. But his monitoring of the department comes with a leash. He can sit in on police interviews when there is a complaint against the department, but he can't start anything from scratch, or talk to anyone police won't talk to as part of their report.
On February 12, 2013, by a margin of 70-to-30 percent, voters chose give the Ombudsman position independent investigative authority. Voters might have thought it was a "done deal" after the vote, but KREM 2 found out nothing has changed all these months later.
That's because the Police Guild, the union representing the officers, must approve it as part of its new contract. Police chief Frank Straub, employed by and speaking for the city, says the changes to the ombudsman position are not a sticking point. But the collective bargaining process is dragging on over an issue that usually holds up such negotiations -- money -- as in officer pay and other key issues in the contract process.
Still, more than six months after the vote, we wanted to get someone on the record for a timeline on when the will of the voters will actually take effect. We asked the city, the guild and the police chief. Chief Straub was the only one to offer an estimate. He said, from what he's seen, he anticipates settlement on a police contract within a month or so. But he cautioned if money or another sticking point sends the matter to arbitration, the ombudsman position will remain in its weakened state for much longer.