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Bainbridge council gets first look at proposal for police oversight board

The Bainbridge Island City Council took its first in-depth look at the idea of creating a new advisory group that would serve as a watchdog over the workings of the city’s police department.

Although the concept found little support from a special task force set up to study the idea, some on Bainbridge Island think the idea is a worthy one.

At its meeting this week, the Bainbridge council also raised questions about what the advisory board would do and what it wouldn’t do.

“I think it’s important for the citizens to understand both what this is and what this isn’t,” noted Councilman David Ward. “And what goes here and what doesn’t go here.”

City Manager Doug Schulze said the city’s proposal was modeled after an ordinance in Lincoln, Nebraska, which has an oversight body recognized by the National Association for Civilian Oversight in Law Enforcement.

Uncommon approach

Schulze said only two cities in the state — Seattle and Spokane — are currently using oversight groups.

He added that Bainbridge’s model may need more tinkering.

“Based on the comments that the council received this afternoon, and the input that Chief Hamner and I received — we do think that we would like to take a little more time and bring this back at a future date,” Schulze said.

Police chief is advocate

The board, if set up by the city council, would review complaints about the conduct of police officers as well as general complaints about the police department.

The new Citizen Police Advisory Board will build trust and strengthen ties with the community, Police Chief Matthew Hamner said late last week.

“Transparency breeds trust,” Hamner said.

“I’m willing to be very open and transparent about what we’re doing. Quite honestly, it’s important that the citizens have an opportunity to see what’s going on in the department in a much more magnified way,” he said.

Calls for an independent citizen oversight committee intensified in 2012 as the city found itself the subject of a federal civil rights lawsuit prompted by the fatal police shooting of a mentally ill Bainbridge Island man in October 2010.

Douglas Ostling was shot and killed by a Bainbridge police officer after officers went to his family’s home to investigate a 911 call and Ostling met officers at his apartment door with an axe.

The jury in the federal case decided the shooting was justified, but also found that the Bainbridge Island Police Department had not adequately trained its officers and the family’s civil rights had been violated. The family was awarded

$1 million.

Earlier this year, the city formed a 10-member task force to examine the idea of creating an oversight commission.

Though all but one of the task force members said a commission wasn’t necessary at the end of their review, city officials noted that two different independent consultants hired by the city in recent years supported the idea of a citizens advisory board.

Hamner is also asking the city council to create the advisory board.

“I want a full turnaround of the ship. I want everyone in the community to know that this police department is accountable to the public,” Hamner said.

How it would work

Citizens on the seven-member board will be appointed by the city manager and confirmed to their posts by the city council, and are expected to represent a cross section of the community.

The city attorney will serve as advisory counsel to the board, and an officer of the police department is also expected to serve as a non-voting liaison member.

The board will look into complaints submitted to the city manager. Complaints about specific events must be filed within 45 days of the alleged incident, though general complaints can be filed at any time.

The board will not have jurisdiction to review complaints that are the subject of civil lawsuits or are connected to criminal actions that are pending.

Complaint-driven board

According to the proposed structure of the board, the board chairman will dismiss any complaints when:

A civil or criminal action relating to the complaint is pending, regardless of whether the complainant is a party to the action;

The complainant has filed a civil action based upon the event or alleged police conduct upon which the complaint is based;

The complaint is redundant to other complaints previously filed by the same party;

The complaint is filed out of time;

The complaint is filed against parties other than members of the Bainbridge Island Police Department;

The complaint relates to events that were the basis of prior complaints handled by or pending before the board; or

The complaint is wholly frivolous on its face.

Decisions by the board chairman to dismiss complaints can be reviewed by the full board at a following meeting and upheld or overturned.

According to the ordinance that creates the new committee, complaints will be investigated within

60 days of being submitted.

The board chairman will conduct an initial review, which will be followed by an investigation conducted by two members of the board.

The police chief will also designate one or more officers of the police department to investigate any complaints on behalf of the department.

After the board reviews reports on complaints, it will decide whether the city manager or police chief need to take corrective action, and the board will put its findings in writing, as well as any recommendations for improvements.

The board will also review all complaints at an annual meeting to determine if a pattern of misconduct has occurred or if particular police department policies “are being met with significant disapproval by a substantial number of citizens.”

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