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Like Boise, Like Spokane: Shakeup at Ombudsman's Office


Spokane, Wash., and Boise both have ombudsman issues. 

According to the Pacific Northwest Inlander, while former Spokane Police Ombudsman Tim Burns resigned in January, no one has been selected to fill the vacant seat. Now, the Spokane City Council has unanimously passed a resolution to generate a shortlist of three candidates to take up the job on an interim basis. Meanwhile, the office of the ombudsman is in disarray as the Inlander reports the "assistant to the nonexistent ombudsman," Rebekah Hollwedel, announced last week that her last day would be Wednesday, May 20. 

If that sounds familiar, it's because Spokane's ombudsman situation is practically identical to Boise's.

Pierce Murphy, who served as ombudsman in Boise for 14 years, took a similar job in Seattle in July 2013, leaving Dennis Dunne to perform the job on a part-time basis until a permanent replacement could be found. Now, Dunne is on vacation, and Boise officials announced April 27 that they'd reduced the field of candidates for Boise community ombudsman from 32 to six. According to Mike Journee, spokesman for the office of Mayor Dave Bieter, those six applicants are still moving through the human resources process, including background checks and following up with references.

It is anticipated that a new, part-time ombudsman will have been selected, vetted and approved by the Boise City Council by the time Dunne returns to Boise in July, after which time he will serve as a full-time investigator in the ombudsman's office. All of this is taking place as a response team investigates the death of Michael Casper, who was fatally shot by police in February.

Spokane and Boise's respective police departments, meanwhile, are in periods of transition. Burns strengthened Spokane's ombudsman's office during his five-years in the position while the city wrestled with controversy over a series of use-of-force incidents, including the in-custody death of Otto Zehm, who was beaten by police officers in 2006 and later died from his injuries. The Spokane Police Department, as part of a settlement with the Zehm family, now puts every SPD officer through a 40-hour Crisis Intervention Team training course to de-escalate behavioral health crises. 

Here in Boise, the situation is again similar with a string of use-of-force incidents in the late 1990s and early '00s instigating the creation of the ombudsman's office and, more recently, a change within the Boise Police Department as incoming Chief of Police Bill Bones helmed the creation of a mental health coordinator position within the BPD.  

In general, BPD has embarked on a shift away from "policing communities" and toward "providing police services." For now, though, the positions held by watchers of the watchmen are empty in both cities.