State lawmakers advanced several good police reforms out of committee before Monday’s policy cutoff. But they balked at a vital piece of legislation that would help make sure that police chiefs and sheriffs aren’t forced to put cops with troubling records back on the payroll.
Senate Bill 5134 would have stripped disciplinary processes for excessive use of force and other serious misconduct from collective-bargaining agreements between law enforcement unions and agencies. It would eliminate private arbitration for disciplinary appeals, replacing it with public hearings before a civil service commission, hearing examiner or administrative law judge. It would require cities, counties and other law enforcement jurisdictions to establish procedures for misconduct investigations and discipline, and give the public an opportunity to review and comment on those rules.
These key changes would prevent arbitrators from overruling agencies when they try to clear bad apples from their ranks, such as the arbitrator who ordered Seattle Police to reinstate Officer Adley Shepherd after he was fired for punching a drunk and handcuffed woman in the face in 2014. A King County judge eventually vacated that ruling when Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes brought the case for judicial review — an unusual move that resulted in a rare reversal.
Unfortunately, SB 5134 withered on the vine.
The Senate Labor, Commerce & Tribal Affairs committee took no action on the bill after several law enforcement unions and other labor groups voiced their opposition in a Jan. 14 public hearing. Chief among concerns recorded in a bill report was the fear that the bill “attacks the fundamental tenets of collective bargaining.”
This slippery slope is imaginary. As the ACLU of Washington wrote in a brief in support of SB 5134, ” … because police have the authority to take life and liberty, they must be treated differently when it comes to accountability.”
Police disciplinary actions are matters of public interest, fundamentally different from working conditions like benefits and wages. Removing discipline from collective bargaining is not an erosion of workers’ rights — it is an essential support to other police reforms.
The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Jesse Salomon, D-Shoreline, says he will try again next year. In an interview, he was quick to point out the groundbreaking legislation still under consideration: Bills originating in both the House and Senate that will raise standards, and strengthen oversight and accountability for officers who misuse their authority and violate the public trust.
Other bills would direct the state Auditor’s Office to review deadly force investigations, create a public statewide use-of-force database, establish community oversight boards to review law enforcement agencies’ policies and discipline processes, and expand the grounds for decertification of officers to include excessive use of force.
These worthy bills are the products of robust discussion and community input. They should swiftly be ushered into law.
But even then, the work will not be done.