In a setback for the Seattle police union, a King County Superior Court judge agreed Wednesday the court should review an arbitrator's decision that ordered the Seattle Police Department to stop releasing the names of officers disciplined for misconduct.
In a setback for the Seattle police union, a King County Superior Court judge agreed Wednesday the court should review an arbitrator’s decision that ordered the Seattle Police Department to stop releasing the names of officers disciplined for misconduct.
Chief Civil Judge Laura Inveen rejected a request from the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild to let the arbitrator’s decision stand, noting an “evolution” in court rulings in the past few years that has led to “broader and broader” interpretations of what should be disclosed under the state’s public-records law.
During a brief hearing, Assistant City Attorney Paul Olsen urged Inveen to allow a review of the decision, saying the Police Department is required to release the names under the records law and that the public has an interest in knowing the identities.
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The guild’s attorney, Hillary McClure, told Inveen the city was trying to get the court to inappropriately substitute its judgment for a proper decision by the arbitrator.
The case will be assigned to another judge to determine if the decision should be overturned.
Sgt. Rich O’Neill, president of the police guild, said Inveen’s ruling was “not a surprise” and the union is willing to deal with a clear court decision that requires the release of names.
“Then there is clarification,” he said.
On May 24, arbitrator Paul Grace sided with the guild’s contention that its 2008 contract with the city required the Police Department to continue its established practice of withholding the names of disciplined officers.
In a petition to Inveen, the City Attorney’s Office said the arbitrator misinterpreted the contract and ordered an “absurd” remedy that conflicts with the state’s Public Records Act.
McClure contended in a court brief that case law required the judge to give deference to the arbitrator.
The arbitrator’s decision “is not arbitrary and capricious, does not violate public policy and is not illegal,” McClure wrote, citing a “law-enforcement exemption” in the public-disclosure law allowing officers’ names to be withheld.
City attorneys responded that the law requires disclosure of all public records with “narrowly construed” exceptions.
Despite Grace’s decision, the Police Department has continued its policy of releasing the names of disciplined officers in response to public-disclosure requests filed by the media and others.
The department began releasing the names in 2009, reversing a long-standing practice of redacting names from records using the law-enforcement exemption.
The change grew out of the city’s adoption of 29 recommendations of a citizens panel submitted in January 2008. The panel sought to hold officers more accountable after two highly publicized incidents that raised questions about the department’s disciplinary rules.
After the 2008 contract was signed, the Police Department determined new wording gave it greater latitude to release names.
But Grace agreed with the guild that the contract still required the city to continue its policy of withholding “personal identifying information” from disciplinary records.
He found that the city didn’t inform the guild during contract negotiations of its plans to change the policy, and that the city had presented no new case law supporting its position.
In their court petition, city attorneys said state Supreme Court decisions in other cases have made it clear the Public Records Act is a “strongly worded mandate” for broad disclosure with financial penalties for the improper denial of documents.
“Forcing the City to knowingly violate the PRA is contrary to public policy and must be rejected by the Court,” the petition said.
In her brief, guild attorney McClure wrote: “What the City fails to grasp is that the case law makes it clear a party’s unhappiness with the result in an arbitration case does not make the arbitrator’s decision arbitrary and capricious or illegal.”
Grace’s ruling came at a time when the department — under U.S. Justice Department investigation over allegations of misuse of force and mistreatment of minorities, and facing criticism that it isn’t transparent — has sought to provide more information about internal investigations.
The department told Grace the community expected openness.
Information from Seattle Times archives is included in this story.
Steve Miletich: 206-464-3302 or firstname.lastname@example.org