Seattle won't be able to improve the way it handles police misconduct until it takes a tougher stance with the city's police union, an expert...
Seattle won’t be able to improve the way it handles police misconduct until it takes a tougher stance with the city’s police union, an expert panel appointed by Mayor Greg Nickels said Tuesday.
Nickels, who was handed 29 recommendations by the panel to improve police oversight, immediately promised he would move to adopt some of the proposals without bargaining with the union.
The panel’s recommendations, outlined in a 14-page report, called for strengthening civilian oversight of the Police Department, imposing stricter discipline on officers and giving the public more information about internal investigations.
The Seattle Police Officers’ Guild reiterated Tuesday its long-standing position that under labor law, most of the proposals must be discussed at the bargaining table.
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“Anything of substance, anything other than a minor tweak to the system, it’s a good bet it’s got to be bargained,” said Sgt. Rich O’Neill, president of the police union.
Under bargaining, the process could take years.
The mayor’s panel, which included former Gov. Gary Locke and former Seattle Mayor Norm Rice, urged the union to cooperate with the city and recognize that the recommendations protect the department from the damage a few bad officers can do to public confidence.
“They do not work for themselves, they work for the citizens,” said panel member Hubert Locke, a professor of public affairs at the University of Washington who is not related to Gov. Locke.
Locke said the guild should be able to negotiate certain working conditions, but added “there are limits to that right.”
In its report, the panel said improvements to police oversight “should not be bargained away in labor agreements.” Nickels, who accepted all 29 recommendations, said he would announce within a week which proposals he believes don’t require bargaining and those he would discuss with the union.
“I intend to assert management rights very strongly,” he said at a news conference shortly after the panel unveiled its report.
Nickels appointed the panel in June after complaints that Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske did not adequately discipline two officers involved in the controversial arrest of an African-American drug dealer last year. The chief was also criticized for not disciplining officers who beat an African-American man outside a Capitol Hill bar in 2005.
O’Neill said Tuesday he was encouraged that the panel found no major flaws in the current system of police oversight.
The guild and the city are now in contract talks, but the union has said it won’t consider any major changes to the disciplinary system until the next round begins in 2010.
O’Neill said the union will have to study the proposals before deciding which should be negotiated.
The mayor’s panel examined Seattle’s current system of police oversight, which grew out of a recommendation by another expert panel in 1999.
At that time, the city established a civilian-led unit in the Police Department to oversee internal investigations, naming it the Office of Professional Accountability (OPA). The OPA is monitored by a civilian auditor appointed by the mayor and a citizen-review board appointed by the City Council.
Panel Chairman Terrence Carroll, a former judge who also served on the 1999 panel, said the three oversight agencies don’t work together and have become “Balkanized.”
The report said the three should work closely and issue a joint report twice a year, initially focusing on improving police relations with minority communities.
Panel member Lorena González, a Seattle attorney, noted “it’s no secret that we’re here because of two controversial cases involving two people of color.”
Among the panel’s proposals is one that would significantly expand the civilian auditor’s job, broadening it from primarily monitoring ongoing internal investigations to conducting in-depth audits.
The review board, which has three members and reviews closed internal investigations, should be expanded to five to seven members and be given the duty of working closely with the community, the panel said.
It should hold four hearings a year with the public and make recommendations for improving policies, the panel said.
The panel also recommended that OPA’s civilian director be given more independence to control the unit’s budget, select investigators and pick a deputy director.
Concerning discipline, the panel said there should be a presumption officers will be fired for dishonesty that occurs in their official duties. The police chief would have to provide a written explanation if he doesn’t fire them.
The panel also recommended:
• Disclosing to the public all records regarding internal investigations, within public-disclosure laws.
• Barring officers from using overtime pay or vacation when they are suspended without pay.
• Adopting a policy that prohibits officers from retaliating against people who file complaints against them.
• Requiring more investigation by the OPA when the chief is inclined not to impose discipline because of new information raised at the last stage of an internal investigation.
The panel also would require the chief to put his reasons in writing when he disagrees with a disciplinary recommendation by the OPA. Kerlikowske was directed to begin doing that Jan. 1 under a law passed by the City Council last year, but the guild plans to challenge it.
Kerlikowske praised the panel’s work in a written statement Tuesday, saying, “The Seattle Police Department has more civilian oversight than any law enforcement agency in Washington and these recommendations can only strengthen this system.”
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