A Rocky History Overshadows As Spokane Council Prepares To Vote On Police Contract

Jun 27, 2020
Originally published on June 27, 2020 11:12 pm

Ten years ago, Breean Beggs was an outsider waging a battle to make the Spokane Police Department more transparent and accountable when he got a letter from a city attorney.

At the time, Beggs, a lawyer, represented the family of Otto Zehm, who was killed by police in 2006, and city council members were sounding him out about the creation of an independent police watchdog position housed in City Hall.

The letter came five days before the council would vote on an ordinance creating just such a police ombudsman, and was written by Rocky Treppiedi, who said he’d heard that Beggs had spoken to elected officials “without my knowledge or my permission.”

Treppiedi warned Beggs to “cease immediately any and all contact with the City’s representatives, including elected officials … [or] I will have little choice but to forward this matter to the Washington State Bar Association as a formal complaint.”

Beggs took the matter seriously. After all, Treppiedi had defended the Spokane Police Department for more than 20 years, and in those decades had earned a reputation for being intimidating and creating an environment that encouraged police misconduct.

Regardless of the threat, the ombudsman ordinance passed unanimously

Within two years, Treppieidi would be fired from the city, in part, for his aggressive tactics in defending the police department.

A Change In Leadership

Now, Beggs is at the heart of power as the city council president, one of only two positions that are elected by all the city’s voters, along with the mayor.

Yet still the power and role of the police ombudsman is being contested. On June 29, the City Council will vote on a contract for the union representing the city’s 300 police officers, which will retroactively cover 2016 through the end of 2020. Like the police guild’s most recent contract, it limits the independence of the ombudsman.

Despite global protests over police power and brutality, the city of Spokane is poised to approve the contract. It has Mayor Nadine Woodward’s support, and the guild’s support. 

“If this council and this community wants to see more police reform and recruit great officers in the future, we need to get this contract behind us so we can start working on the things that we need to work on for our future,” Woodward told the public radio Northwest News Network recently.

But according to Beggs, as well as the current ombudsman, Spokane civil rights leaders and some council members, the contract diminishes the authority and independence of the watchdog overseeing the department —  independence that voters overwhelmingly approved in 2013 with 70% of the vote.

“The Spokane city charter guarantees that the civilian oversight function will be able to investigate cases independently and publish closing reports with their thoughts at the end of the case. That’s the constitution of our city, and this current version of the proposed contract doesn’t have that,” Beggs says.

Though Beggs and other council members are barred by state law from discussing how they’ll vote on the contract, Beggs says he has a lot of unanswered questions.

“No one’s explained to me how city council could even vote for this contract since it violates our city charter,” he says. “I’ve asked for a legal opinion on that and I haven’t gotten it. So I don’t think I’m even permitted to vote for it under our city charter.”

Woodward says the contract is “closer” to honoring the charter, and negotiations for the guild’s next contract would begin “immediately.”

“We’re getting closer to it, but we need to work on it some more and that will happen in the next contract,” she says.

Betsy Wilkerson, the council’s sole Black member, says the moment has come for police reform, considering the global Black Lives Matter movement.

“It is not our men and women in blue. We are trying to change the system that they have to work within,” Wilkerson says. “With the abilities they have to lock you up, take away your liberty and possibly kill you, they are held to a higher standard. And they should be. That’s a lot of power.”

The police guild did not return multiple emails and phone calls seeking comment.

Reform Or Status Quo?

The proposed contract gives the city’s police force an increase in pay totaling more than $6 million for the years 2017 through 2020, which includes a 3% raise for the 300 officers for most of those years.

It also gives the union a new ability to file a grievance and prevent someone from filling the ombudsman position, or sitting on the ombudsman commission. It would also give the union power to remove someone from those positions.

On the other hand, the contract would give power to the assistant ombudsman similar to the ombudsman’s, and allow both to access confidential case information. 

Finally, the contract would give the ombudsman the ability to investigate a complaint even if the police department isn’t investigating that complaint. 

But it’s not enough, according to Kurtis Robinson, president of the local branch of the NAACP. In fact, he says, it’s all wrong.

Robinson says including the ombudsman in the labor contract at all is “worrisome” and “extremely problematic, especially in this climate.” 

For Robinson, the ombudsman is a separate issue, and was already decided by voters seven years ago. 

“As far as the people are concerned, and the public, and it should be the perspective of those who serve the public, we’ve already spoken on this. This is what we want. This is what we voted for,” he says. “This is about having law enforcement be the community service organization that the people are telling us it needs to be, and their refusal to do so.”

The 2013 vote explicitly gave authority to the ombudsman to investigate a complaint, independent of the police department or its internal affairs division, as well as publicly publish a report following the end of an investigation.

Woodward’s administration, which largely inherited the contract with the police guild the administration of Spokane’s previous mayor, David Condon, has argued that it actually strengthens the ombudsman’s independence by giving the assistant more power and the new access to confidential information.

“I wasn’t part of the discussions regarding OPO, ombudsman, but was confident that the discussions that had taken place before I came into the picture there was a lot of agreement on,” Woodward says.

Woodward says that the years of reforms the police department has gone through, including a voluntary review by the U.S. Department of Justice in 2012, and the implementation of the 42 recommendations made by the Justice Department, show its willingness to reform itself.

She added that Spokane police shouldn’t be compared to police in Minneapolis who killed George Floyd and spurred global protests.

“I think what happened in Minneapolis is a tragedy, but I don’t think that our officers should be painted with a broad brush based on the behavior of other officers,” she says.

The current ombudsman, however, warned that the contract erodes his independence.

In a letter sent to Woodward and city council members this month, Bart Logue, the city’s current ombudsman, warned that the contract would “greatly” infringe on his office’s independence.

"In this job, I have faced numerous accusations, disrespect, and outright hostility from the police guild. I have faced countless obstacles from the police department and city as I have worked to fulfill the requirements of the office," he wrote. "What has become crystal clear to me over nearly four and a half years, is that there would be NO chance I would still be standing in this role without independence from the city.”

From Zehm To Woodward’s Endorsement

The police guild was formed in the 1970s, but its power to affect city policy came into clear focus after Otto Zehm was killed in 2006.

Zehm was on his way to a convenience store when he stopped by an ATM to get some cash. He was on foot, and two young people thought he was trying to steal money from the machine, so they called the cops.

Minutes later, Zehm was in the Zip Trip store for his usual Snickers candy bar when Officer Karl Thompson entered the store, baton at the ready, and told him to “drop the pop.” 

Zehm, who was developmentally disabled, turned to see Thompson charging him, and raised a two-liter bottle to protect his head. Thompson began beating him with the ironwood baton he had kept from his days with the Los Angeles Police Department. 

Zehm was struck in the head, tasered, hog-tied and left to lay on his stomach for 16 minutes. 

He died three days later. The city erupted, and calls for police reform began dominating discussions of what had gone wrong.

In 2007, an independent consultant hired by the city reported that the existing police review board had lost the public’s trust and should be replaced by a full-time police ombudsman answerable only to the mayor. Mayor Dennis Hession and Chief Anne Kirkpatrick endorsed the plan.

That same year, the city and guild approved a contract covering 2006 through 2009.

In 2008, the first iteration of the ombudsman position was created, but with limited power. For example, the ombudsman could receive complaints, but had to forward them to the police internal affairs department. Also, the ombudsman could recommend additional investigations, but that recommendation could be overruled by internal affairs, the police chief or the mayor.

Critics said the powers weren’t enough, but police were happy with it.

In 2011, Thompson was convicted of using excessive force and lying to federal investigators, and sentenced to 51 months in federal prison. Fifty Spokane police officers stood and saluted Thompson as he was led from the courtroom, including future (and now current) Chief Craig Meidl, who has since apologized.

Six days later, voters chose a new mayor with David Condon, who quickly settled with the Zehm family for $1.67 million and —  true to his word on the campaign trail —  fired Rocky Treppiedi, the zealous city lawyer at the center of the Otto Zehm case.

The following year, in 2012, the U.S. Department of Justice began its review, and while Thompson sat in jail, Police Guild President John Gately organized a potluck to raise money for him. Public outrage led Gately to cancel it.

In 2013, 70% of voters approved a ballot measure codifying an independent ombudsman office, a power the Department of Justice and the city’s Use of Force Commission recommended. 

But that power was watered down later in the year as part of labor negotiations with the police guild, which were agreed to by the city council the following year as part of a five-year contract with the guild. The contract retroactively covered 2012 and went through 2016. 

This contract was the last the city and police guild agreed to before the one that is currently being considered by the city council.

Last year, the police guild endorsed Woodward in her run for the mayor’s office. 

Sharing the ballot with Woodward was Proposition 1, which made negotiations between the city and its unions open to the public. It was approved with 76% of the vote.

Yet negotiations over the police guild contract remain under wrap. The city says the guild negotiations will remain closed to the public because it’s been open and ongoing since 2016.

“Folks Of Color Are Really Tired”

Council President Beggs suggests he believes he can’t vote for the contract because it violates the city charter, and he says he’s not very optimistic “in the short term.”

He thinks the city doesn’t have many immediate avenues to pursue police reform. If the council approves the contract, it has approved once again of circumscribing the ombudsman’s powers. If the council votes down the contract, the city and guild will go into binding arbitration where, due to state collective bargaining rules, the guild will have the upper hand. It could be awarded more back pay and further deplete city coffers.

But in the long term, Beggs says he’s hopeful. That’s because state Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig, a Spokane Democrat, has told him that the legislature will consider a law removing civilian oversight from the collective bargaining process either in a special session this year or in the regular 2021 session.

That’s where Beggs says a solution will be found. 

“Council wants to support our officers. They have a challenging job. And yet the citizens demand full transparency. And they want to know the ombudsman’s opinions. And there’s no reason why you can’t have both,” Beggs says.

Woodward says she’s unaware of Billig’s legislative plan, and couldn’t comment on it.

It’s the future that Beggs is preparing for, when the guild has to negotiate yet another contract after this one expires at the end of the year. He wrote a resolution with 42 recommendations that acts as a roadmap for police reform.

The resolution covers a lot. It would ban several police tactics, like chokeholds, kneeling on someone’s neck and using a dog to bite a suspect. It calls for body camera footage to be released within 45 days of a public request, and for the posting of internal affairs reports on the city’s website. The use of armored vehicles would be limited, and the department would have to hire a more diverse workforce to reflect the demographics of the city.

Finally, it calls for the full empowerment of an independent ombudsman, not tied to a labor contract.

The resolution is ambitious, and Councilwoman Lori Kinnear made calls to reporters to reiterate that it was written by Beggs and doesn’t represent the views of the entire council. 

Robinson, with the NAACP, agrees that the ombudsman doesn’t belong in the police guild’s contract. For that reason, he’s urged council members not to approve the contract.

“If there’s any kind of trying to restrict anything from the ombudsman’s ability to act and engage in independent investigations, and recommend, if not implement, accountability for those findings, and having those be publicly available and easily accessible to the general public, no contract,” he says.

And he’ll be watching the votes closely.

“If your values are the voice of the people, standing for the people, representing what the people want, then the decision is very clear. This will be one of those markers that tells that. This is what you stand for,” he says. “We are at the precipice of that undiscovered country about transforming our law enforcement system and family into what we the community and what we all really as a human family need it to be.”

Councilwoman Wilkerson echoed Robinson’s plea, but said everyone, especially police officers, need to be part of the solution. While she said she appreciated the recent protests supporting Black Lives Matter, she said people need to understand that she and other people of color can’t go home after the protest and take a break from a world in chaos.

“That’s a weight I can’t put down, and others folks of color can’t put down. We carry it 24-7. And right now it’s pretty weighty,” she says. “Even now, people question, ‘Well, are you sure he wasn’t doing something wrong? What was he doing?’ It really is exhausting. Folks of color are really tired, and I hate saying I’m tired, but I am.”

With an impending vote, Wilkerson was still waiting to hear from the police.

“It’s that lack of acknowledgement: ‘You know, we have screwed up. And we know that. And we want to be part of a solution,’’ she says. “Have you heard that from anybody? In blue? That’s all I want to hear.”

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