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A Year of Disappointment

A frank assessment from Spokane's police ombudsman commission

by

CALEB WALSH ILLUSTRATION
  • Caleb Walsh illustration

When it comes to Spokane's law enforcement functions and the citizen oversight envisioned by Proposition 1 (now Article 16 of the Spokane City Charter), 2015 has been a year of disappointments, despite finally having the Office of Police Ombudsman Commission (OPOC) in place. Ombudsman Tim Burns announced his resignation on Dec. 12, 2014 — more than a year ago — yet we still do not have even an interim ombudsperson. The selection committee, chaired by the Spokane city attorney, began meeting in January, but refused to recommend candidates for the interim, in spite of the clear language of the Spokane municipal code and a unanimous May resolution from the city council.

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The selection committee finally forwarded three names for the permanent ombudsperson to the OPOC in mid-July. Within 24 hours, remarks by candidate Allen Huggins on social media were discovered that raised serious questions about his ability to win the trust of our community. A formal background check done by the OPOC (after learning that the selection committee had failed to do one), made it clear that problems with candidate Robert Breeden's tenure in Florida made him an unacceptable candidate. Fortunately, Raheel Humayun appears to be eminently qualified and, in November, accepted the employment package offered. Unfortunately, the only qualified candidate forwarded by the committee is not a U.S. citizen, so we are now in the process of trying to get Humayun a visa.

Accordingly, we still need the interim ombudsperson who never made it out of committee. A new selection committee has been formed and is being very diligent in moving forward. We hope to have finalists for the interim ombudsperson by mid-January.

As chair of the OPOC, I was encouraged by what appeared to be a new spirit of getting this done as efficiently and effectively as possible. Yet last week I learned that it has taken four weeks for the city just to complete a contract with the immigration attorney who had been agreed to even before Humayun accepted the offer.

In spite of the year of setbacks and frustrations, I expect 2016 to be a year of accomplishments. The city council has made some improvements to the ombudsman ordinance, and we will continue to improve the ordinance. We will have an interim ombudsperson in place early next year who will stay until the permanent ombudsman takes office. In contrast to the first selection committee, which did virtually all of its work in closed session, the OPOC's entire process took place in open session with significant public participation. The new selection committee appears to be committed to a similar level of transparency.

With an ombudsperson in place, we can deal with the full year's backlog of complaints, and restore the public confidence that there is real civilian oversight of SPD. Continued work on the ordinance will ensure that the OPO is never again vacant for more than a year. We move forward with a commission and an OPO committed to engaging the community, listening to all parties and providing real oversight for Spokane. ♦

Deb Conklin, a United Methodist pastor and a former deputy prosecutor involved in social justice ministries in Spokane, currently serves as the chair of the Office of Police Ombudsman Commission.