The Center for Justice and its allies in police oversight reform won a major victory this week when Spokane voters, by a resounding 70-30 margin, passed Proposition 1. Prop 1 will require that the City’s Office of Police Ombudsman (OPO) be empowered with independent investigative and reporting authority. The main purposes of the Ombudsman office are to review citizen complaints and make recommendations for improving police policy and practices. Under Prop 1, a new citizens commission will also be created to advise the office and oversee its activities.
“Given the pain that this community has suffered since the Otto Zehm tragedy,” says the Center’s Executive Director, Rick Eichstaedt, “it is no surprise that Proposition 1 passed. Spokane wants to move on — we want to trust our police force again — and Proposition 1 is another step to make that happen.”
While the lopsided vote count perfectly reflects public support for credible civilian oversight of Spokane’s tarnished police force, it doesn’t begin to reflect just how difficult it has been to achieve the goal. The concept of a police ombudsman was largely inspired by a successful initiative in Boise, where that city’s ombudsman, Pierce Murphy, began working in early 1999 to bring credible oversight to a department under a cloud of suspicion. The Center helped arrange for Murphy’s visit to Spokane in May 2008 following the delivery of a city consultant’s report recommending that Spokane create an independent ombudsman’s office.
But before Murphy could brief Spokane’s elected leaders the city entered into an agreement with the Spokane Police Guild that effectively barred Spokane from adopting the Boise model. Instead, Spokane was stuck with what amounted to a disempowered “ride-along” auditor whose role was limited to reviewing the police department’s internal investigations of citizen complaints. Despite a drum-beat of citizen protests and media critiques, the city continued to sign off on labor agreements with the police guild that rendered the Spokane ombudsman, Tim Burns, a toothless watchdog.
All that changed last fall. On November 1st, the Center and its allies called a press conference at City Hall to protest the city’s foot-dragging on police oversight reform and present city leaders with a new ordinance for a robust police ombudsman and citizen advisory panel. Within weeks, council members Steve Salvatori and Mike Allen stepped forward with what would become Proposition 1–a city charter amendment that, henceforth, would bar the city from entering into future labor contracts to perpetuate the powerlessness of the city’s police ombudsman.
“This sends a strong message that the citizens of Spokane want strong and meaningful police oversight,” says Eichstaedt. ”Now the work begins at City Hall to draft a new ordinance and contract with the Police Guild that reflects the requirement for independent oversight.”
As we reported just hours ago, the latest remarkable twist in Spokane’s police reform saga is the announcement that the federal Justice Department has just initiated a thorough “technical assistance” inquiry to look at the Spokane Police Department’s culture and its handling and investigation of use of force incidents.
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The Ground Truths About Suspending Licenses
In a little over a month, the Washington State Supreme Court takes up the criminal case of Stephen C. Johnson, a Lewis County man arrested in 2008 for, as he puts it, “driving while poor.”
Johnson’s case highlights a syndrome that the Center for Justice deals with constantly in our driver re-licensing program. Driving with a suspended license is the state’s most charged crime, accounting for a third of all charged misdemeanors in Washington. The way this works is that people living on the edge of poverty get cited for a minor traffic offense. When they are unable to pay the stiff (frequently in the hundreds of dollars) fine, the state suspends their license. Then they get pulled over and charged with driving with license suspended, a “crime” that not only adds to their tab, but often lands them in jail.
As Johnson’s lawyer, Kevin Hochhalter, told the Seattle Times recently: “When the choice is between a traffic ticket and food for your family, you choose the food.”
To highlight this reality and open a dialogue with the state’s policy makers, the Center for Justice took the lead this winter in preparing a new report, An Intimate Look into Washington’s Policy of Suspending Driver’s Licenses for Non-Payment of Traffic Fines, Voices of Suspended Drivers.
Says CFJ lawyer Julie Schaffer, the report’s lead author: “It’s not a very sexy issue,” explains Center for Justice staff attorney Julie Schaffer. “People don’t think of driver’s licenses as this big debtor’s prison-slash-civil rights issue. It even sounds kind of boring. But if affects so many people.”
You can read more about the report at Driven to Despair.
Meet Kendel Huff
The Center is very pleased to welcome Kendel Huff as our new Development Director, effective in January. Kendel replaces Shawna Sampson who departed late last year to take a position with the Salvation Army in Spokane. Kendel is a former CFJ intern and Whitworth University graduate who brings a fresh and healthy dose of passion and idealism to our work.
“I still hold very dear the idea that I’d like to change the world,” Kendel says. “I’d like to make changes and be involved with other people and other organizations who are passionate about what they’re doing, and are pursuing that passion with honor. I can sense and see that they’re living and breathing those things, that this is not just a job where I come during the day—it’s what is important to me every single day of my life. And I sense that at the Center, I sensed that when I was here four years ago as an intern, I sensed that when I was interviewing. And it’s something I’m really excited to be a part of.”
You can read Tim Connor’s profile piece about Kendel, Kendel’s Niche.
Coalescing Against Coal
The breadth of Spokane Riverkeeper Bart Mihailovich’s job is extraordinary. On any given day he’ll be working down to the storm drain level to address water pollution problems in the Spokane River, and then change gears to work on, well, saving the planet from the ravages of global climate change. On the global front, what has Bart’s attention (and ours) are the plans to greatly expand ports in Washington to expedite the shipment of Powder River Basin coal into China and other overseas markets. To be sure, Bart and others are working diligently to ensure that the local and regional transportation and environmental consequences of the project ramp up in coal shipments is accounted for in the final decisions about the export terminals. But, of course, the overarching element here is the planetary story of our times—how the unchecked burning of coal around the world may be moving us beyond a point of no return in terms of devastating changes to the world’s ecology and economy. You can follow Bart’s work, and his amazing job, at his Living River blog.
Garlands for the Commission
For the past year, much of the Center’s work on police accountability has focused on the labor-intensive work of the Mayor’s Use of Force Commission, headed by Gonzaga University Executive Vice President Earl “Marty” Martin. It was a wise investment. As we report in Tour de Force
and Please Go On Martin and the Commission are set to deliver, by the end of February, an extraordinary final report that will be an invaluable road map for reforming and overhauling the Spokane Police Department. Certainly a key question for the future is whether the Mayor and the Council will move to fully implement and fund the Commission’s recommendations. No doubt, we’ll have some ideas for how you can help us, and the City, get the full value of the Commission’s fine work.
One of the relative new features of our website is that we can now share full audio interviews with prominent voices in our community. Two of our more recent programs feature veteran Spokane journalist Bill Morlin, and Cecil Johnson, one of the leading community voices in Spokane’s Smart Justice movement. Bill Morlin, as many of you know, rose to national prominence for his in-depth reporting of the Aryan Nations and other regional hate groups and militia organizations. After retiring from the Spokesman-Review in March of 2009, Morlin has continued his work on a national level, filing his reports with the media arm of the Southern Poverty Law Center. In this interview in late January, Bill talks very candidly about the trends he is seeing nationally and regionally among extremist groups, and how racial hatred stirred by the election of a black President has fueled right-wing fanaticism, often leading to violence or preparations for violence. To hear the interview with Bill, go to Bill Morlin’s Take on Hate.
Earlier this month, as part of our continuing Smart Justice dialogues, Tim Connor sat down with Cecil Jackson. Cecil is the founder of the Jackson Sports Academy in Spokane and, from his experience as the son of a single mom from Fort Worth, Texas, he’s passionate about the need to connect with young people. He’s also outspoken about the choices we face as a society and a community in deciding whether we are going to invest primarily in opportunities for disadvantaged youth, or in prison cells. To hear the interview with Cecil go to More than a Coach.
From the Kitchen Table
Finally, our writer-in-residence Tim Connor has new opinion pieces on guns, violence, and global warming in our Kitchen Table section. To get his take on American gun culture following the Sandy Hook massacre, go to After Sandy Hook and Gabby Giffords Speaks.
Finally, there is the deeply troubling conduct of the Obama Administration and its super-secret drone program, wherein unnamed high-level officials have been delegated life and death decision-making without any meaningful Congressional or judicial oversight. This piece is entitled Murderous Logic: How John Brennan and Barack Obama Became the Extra-Judicial Deadly Gods of a Covert War.
Until next time.