The Ombudsman: A Way Forward For Your City?

ImageThere seems to be a growing amount of urban conflict today between police and community members. It can predictably happen after a police shooting. When a suspect dies in police custody or an unarmed man is shot and killed by police. The scenario is usually unfolds like this: a man dies and the community questions the actions by police. There is an investigation by both the police and the district attorney. After a period of time, the police are absolved of both criminal conduct or the violation of police department rules. Some members of the community strongly criticize these findings — it has taken too long, the police are left to investigate themselves, and so on. The result is that trust of the police is undermined and the police are left feeling the community does not support them in their difficult work. In the end, little is resolved and hard lasting feelings continue on both “sides” of the argument.

What to do? Is there another way to handle conflicts like this? In the past, these conflicts have often resulted in the formation of citizen review boards by mayors and city councils, but after all the years their track record is questionable as to their ability to resolved the conflict. It was recently revealed that the civilian review board in Charlotte, NC, had, in 16 years of operation, never  made a finding against police. That seems to be the pattern of a citizen review board. And when a board fails (ever) to find against police, they further anger community members who feel the cards are stacked against them when they complain against police.

Is there a way out of this morass of community conflict? I have struggled back and forth over the years about this dilemma. How are citizens to be given fair and equitable treatment in such circumstances? Interestingly, the city in which I was the police chief for over two decades before I retired is currently experiencing this kind of conflict regarding the shooting of an unarmed, intoxicated young man. Both the district attorney and police internal investigators have exonerated the officer and this has resulted in growing anger from many community members who believe the taking of the man’s life was unreasonable, if not immoral, given the situation. (See an earlier blog on this).

The other day, I was thinking about an idea concerning public accountability that I had studied during my university days. It was t0 appoint a community advocate to work through problems such as these. The idea originally came from Sweden. The person was called an “ombudsman” and he or she was to be a respected, independent,  “wise” person to hear and resolve complaints from citizens against those in power.

The first public sector ombudsman was appointed in 1809 in Sweden to be an arbiter between the King and Parliament. The position was to protect the rights of individuals against the excesses of bureaucracy. In effect, a public official appointed by the legislature to receive and investigate citizen complaints against the acts of government.

In 1967, our country appointed its first public sector ombudsman. And since that time, a number of states, counties and municipalities have followed suit. (Examples).

The typical duties of an ombudsman are to investigate complaints and attempt to resolve them. This is usually done by making recommendations, whether binding or not, and through mediation. Ombudsmen often also aim to identify system problems that have led to poor service or breaches of civil rights.

Obviously, to make this idea work effectively, the ombudsman must be a person of great integrity, strength, wisdom, longevity in office, and be outside partisan political squabbles, and be closely in tune with and connected to the community served.

Find out more about ombudsmen at the website of the International Ombudsman Association. The website of the United States Ombudsman Association can be found here. The model they endorse is a legally-created ombudsman, with a term of office, full investigative powers, and access to records.

For a city example see the office of the ombudsman in Boise, Idaho and the police ombudsman in Spokane.

I am not saying that the ombudsman concept is the only way to go but rather that it is something cities should strongly consider in lieu of going to a more traditional civilian review board.

Good luck, good policing, justice, and accountability!