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Debate divides Spokane City Hall over investigation authority into complaints against police chief

An upcoming council vote aims to update city code to reflect what the city's charter already says regarding independent investigations into police complaints.

SPOKANE, Wash. — On Monday, June 12, Spokane's city council is expected to make an emergency change to city code. 

The move is months in the making, following a call from the Spokane Community Against Racism (SCAR) calling for Spokane Police Chief Craig Meidl to resign. The call for his removal comes after the city's police ombudsman released the findings of an investigation that show hundreds of emails exchanged between Chief Meidl and members of the Spokane Business and Commercial Property Owners Council. 

Activists say the emails show favoritism and inappropriate release of city records, including police reports.

Meidl told KREM 2 News he was working with downtown business owners who asked for help tackling crime.

In April, some members of city council called for an independent investigation into these complaints; Mayor Nadine Woodward declined to launch a look into Meidl's actions.

Now, it appears there's not only disagreement about having an investigation, but who has the authority to initiate one.

According to city code, 'Complaints regarding the chief of police shall be directed to the mayor and investigated by the city’s human resources department.'

Council president Breean Beggs says the Office of the Police Ombudsman has the authority to investigate officers under city charter, which has been compared to the city's constitution, but city code doesn't match.

"They left out the ombudsman investigating the police chief," Beggs said of the city council that initially wrote that city code. "So we are going to fix that. We're simply going to remove the language that kept the ombudsman from doing it."

He points to a 2013 voter-approved amendment to the charter, which says:

The OPO shall independently investigate any matter necessary to fulfill its duties under subsection (A) of Section 129, within the limits of the Revised Code of Washington, Washington State case law, Public Employment Relations Commission decisions, the Spokane Municipal Code, and any collective bargaining agreements in existence at the time this amendment takes effect, but only until such agreement is replaced by a successor agreement.

Subsection A, referenced in that portion, says:

The office of police ombudsman (OPO) is established in order to:

  1. help ensure that investigation of complaints against police officers are accomplished in a timely, fair, and thorough manner;
  2. provide visible, professional, independent civilian oversight of police officers;
  3. provide policy makers with recommendations on improvements to police policy, training and recruitment; and
  4. reassure the public that investigations into complaints and allegations of police misconduct are conducted in a timely, thorough, and objective manner.

"I have said a number of times I'm not going to initiate an investigation of our police chief," Mayor Woodward reiterated Thursday. 

In April, Woodward said she was concerned about the "political" nature of the calls for an investigation from city council, saying the topic had "already gone through an independent investigation by the Office of the Police Ombudsman, and that was closed many, many months ago."

While a December 2022 investigation report did detail numerous emails between Meidl and Spokane business owners, it was not the inciting incident for the investigation; the ombudsman was investigating police actions following an August 2020 homicide. 

Activists want Meidl's relationship with those business owners, including his disclosure of city records, to be investigated.

Mayor Woodward says there's no merit in investigating those claims. 

"I have the authority to investigate the police chief. The ombudsman does not," Mayor Woodward said. "If city council wants that, they're going to have to change the city charter."

"So the charter change she's talking about already happened in 2013," Beggs said. "I think she's just not read up on the charter."

Beggs says the ombudsman already has the authority to decide whether to investigate per the charter. The proposed emergency ordinance would clean up those discrepancies between code and charter.

'Section 129 of the Charter defines a broad scope of investigation areas for the OPO. In other words, the Charter says nothing about confining the OPO to matters other than the chief of police. This ordinance harmonizes SMC 04.32.030 with Charter Section 129 by eliminating the provision that narrows the otherwise broad scope of investigative areas of the OPO with respect to the chief of police,' an agenda for the June 12 meeting states.

Still, Woodward questions Beggs' call for an investigation. 

"This is a personal issue he has with our chief who has been active the last two legislative sessions to advocate to get tools back for our police officers so they can do the job they signed up to do," she said. "Those tools were taken away two years ago during police reform measures passed at the state legislature led by our council president."

Beggs denies this, saying he was a good working relationship with Meidl. He in turn says Woodward is keeping this issue going.

"I think she's making it into a political campaign issue," he said. "That's really unfortunate because any other executive who has a complaint against them she promptly gets an investigation that investigates them and they go on."

Council is expected to vote on the emergency ordinance June 12.

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