The majority of the Spokane Valley City Council expressed interest Tuesday in seeking more information on a proposed independent police oversight committee.
The city’s attorney, however, warned that such a group, appointed by the council, could make the city vulnerable to lawsuits in the future.
“I do think it’s a potential cause of liability for the city,” said Cary Driskell, city attorney.
The city could be named a third-part defendant by the sheriff’s office should there ever be an instance when someone was injured or killed as a result of police action -- or inaction -- and a lawsuit ensued, he said. That possibility would be magnified if a council-directed committee had dictated a policy to law enforcement beforehand that could be somehow related to the event.
The majority of the council has considered the idea that Spokane Valley should have its own independent oversight of the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office, which provides the city’s law enforcement by contract.
Driskell said the nature of that contract – the city pays for a service – does not allow it to dictate how the sheriff provides that service.
To do that, the city would have to form its own police force.
“At the end of the day, this council and this community needs to have a long discussion on how important citizen oversight is,” he said.
The sheriff’s office is already overseen by a 17-member committee, along with the county prosecutor, state attorney general, Department of Justice and they U.S. Attorney’s Office. Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich has also offered Spokane Valley two vacant seats on the Citizen Advisory Board.
If the city were to form its own police force, the logistics would be daunting for the city, Driskell said. The council has already indicated that it intends to continue to contract with the sheriff – Mayor Rod Higgins joined Knezovich at a press conference in February and said as such.
If the city were to sever its ties with Spokane County law enforcement, it could do so after June 30. That opens an 18-month window for either party to cancel the contract before the end of 2017. Otherwise, the contract would automatically roll over into a new cycle.
Council Member Ed Pace, who has supported an oversight committee, said his intent has always been to make sure law enforcement is accountable to the people of the community – not to tell police officers how to do their jobs.
“When I go to the dentist, I don’t tell him how to numb my jaw or pull a tooth,” he said. “But I might tell him I don’t like the music or the magazines in the waiting room.”
Council Member Bill Gothmann – along with members Dean Grafos and Chuck Hafner – have voiced opposition to the idea.
“I’m very concerned about the liability,” Gothmann said. “It just seems to me not a wise direction to go.”