Seattle’s police union, mayor agree to strangle new accountability law in its crib
Almost a year and a half after Seattle celebrated the passage of a law streamlining police accountability and establishing an aggressive new civilian watchdog body, the city’s police union is looking to sabotage that progress — with Mayor Jenny Durkan’s (D) help.
Where police unions have often used contract negotiations to extract higher pay in exchange for assenting to reforms like these, the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild (SPOG) and Durkan have agreed to a contract that simply erases key tenets of the reform law signed by Durkan’s predecessor, the disgraced progressive Ed Murray, in June 2017.
The independent Community Police Commission (CPC) recommended the council reject the deal on Wednesday.The young but influential civilian board voted unanimously against the city’s new collective bargaining agreement with the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild Wednesday. The city doesn’t need CPC’s permission to finalize the police union deal, but the unanimously-passed resolution urging the City Council to vote it down will be hard to ignore — especially since it comes with a detailed list of ways Durkan and the union have agreed to override or flout the Council’s own law.
The CPC flagged scores of specific contractual provisions that violate both the letter and spirit of the 16-month-old ordinance, and noted that the contract explicitly commits Seattle to treat its language as overriding in any other unanticipated future conflicts between the 2017 law and the 2018 collective bargaining agreement.
One of the reform’s tentpoles is a new system for adjudicating disputes over disciplinary actions. The chief’s discipline is effectively irrefutable under the law’s mandate that no appeal can result in modifications to the decisions the chief makes in a case. The new system also ends the secretive arbitration process governing police union appeals in Seattle — a common system in police departments, and often cited as the central obstacle to effectively punishing even the most egregious proven misconduct. All appeals hearings must be open to the public and conducted by the city’s Public Safety Civil Service Commission (PSCSC), which can only kick an appeal into arbitration under certain strict conditions.
Like every other component of the 2017 law, the new disciplinary review process stemmed from an extensive and collaborative effort to hammer out durable policy. The union is, in effect, responding by yelling “nuh-uh” and stomping off in the same old direction. The contract Durkan wants ratified restores the classic arbitration system and erases the open-meetings requirement for all such appeals.
“[H]aving these hearings open to the public is the bare bones of improvement, and with this, even that minor improvement has now been eliminated,” the CPC’s markup says.
The law also creates an Office of Professional Accountability, modeled on similar civilian-led investigative bodies dedicated to civilian complaints elsewhere but designed to be more independent of police department influence than its sister institutions in Chicago and New York. Here, too, the contract language intentionally tramples the Council’s work. The CBA Durkan supports would bar OPA from investigating alleged criminal behavior by police, according to the CPC’s markup, and curtail the agency head’s authority over staffing decisions.
Durkan’s office did not immediately respond to questions about the specific criticisms CPC makes. But she disputed their read of the deal in a written statement to the Seattle Times, saying the contract “advances both police reform and public safety.” A press release touting the deal prior to CPC’s vote noted that Seattle officers have been operating without a contract since 2014 and celebrated the force’s progress at restoring community trust — polls have shown the department on an upswing with white and black locals alike — since a federal consent decree went into effect more than half a decade ago. SPOG’s media liaison was in a meeting when ThinkProgress called to get the union’s reaction to CPC’s criticisms.
The 2017 reforms also enshrined police leaders’ authority to reassign officers for either disciplinary or performance-based reasons. The contract pokes holes in that authority, forcing supervisors to both provide a formal written notice with evidence supporting their belief an officer is underperforming or harming their unit’s work and to give the officer between 30 and 90 days to fix their deficiencies. Supervisors can’t move a problem cop outright, despite the city law saying they can do exactly that.
As chartered in the 2017 law, OPA has an unusually strong toolkit for holding cops accountable for unprofessional, illegal, or dishonest behavior. The CBA’s back-door changes to OPA’s authority and policies would put the agency on a leash, likely dooming it to the same kind of shallow, slow, easily-ignored fecklessness that’s undermined similar civilian bodies in New York and Chicago.
The law called for a single-stream standard for OPA’s investigations regardless of the officer’s rank, but the CBA overrides that to restore a system of different standards for higher-ranking cops.
The law set OPA’s burden of proof for misconduct investigations at the “preponderance of evidence” standard common to legal proceedings everywhere, but the contract explicitly raises the bar for any potentially fireable offense that would be “stigmatizing to a law enforcement officer” and harm their ability to get hired to be a cop elsewhere — which, since police officers’ trustworthiness is central to their workplace viability, covers almost every alleged misconduct OPA would ever investigate.
The law specifically said a cop can be disciplined for dishonesty without OPA having to prove they meant to lie, but the contract reverses that change too; OPA must prove not just wrong conduct but wrong thought, creating a chinstroking philosopher’s shield for cops and their union lawyers.
The restriction on OPA’s right to lead investigations on potential criminal acts by cops is especially troubling to the CPC.
“It is a significant weakness in Seattle’s system that there is no civilian oversight and independence for investigations of what may be the most serious types of allegations against officers, those involving possible criminal conduct. OPA is prohibited from doing anything other than referring the complaint to another unit in SPD or an outside law enforcement agency, and then accepting whatever investigation they conduct, regardless of the quality or length of time it takes,” the commission wrote in the contract margins.
“The contracts were supposed to be changed to allow OPA to have responsibility for and oversight over criminal misconduct investigations, eliminating the requirement that OPA must refer possible criminal cases to SPD or another law enforcement agency…so that OPA can handle complaints of criminal misconduct with all the same oversight and control as any other type of alleged misconduct.”
The contract also rolls back subpoena power for the city legal official who the law authorized to force officers and their families to give statements or furnish records in investigations, promises to consult the union on the makeup of the PSCSC even though it’s “a creature of State law and City ordinance and the City is under no obligation to bargain its composition,” the commission wrote.