A ruling in a highly publicized excessive-force case that was likely to be used by critics of the new police labor contract wasn't issued publicly until Nov. 20, a full week after the council approved the contract.
Days before the Seattle City Council voted last November to approve a contentious new labor contract with police, lawyers for the city and the officers’ union privately agreed to delay the release of a ruling allowing the reinstatement of an officer fired for punching a handcuffed woman, city emails show.
The decision that reduced Officer Adley Shepherd’s termination to a 15-day suspension and put him back to work — a ruling in a highly publicized excessive-force case that was likely to be used by critics of the contract — was completed by Oct. 31, the records show. It needed only to be signed by the arbitrator and representatives of the Police Department and union to be finalized.
Instead, the document would remain unsigned and under wraps for nearly three more weeks, the emails show.
During the delay, the City Council on Nov. 13 ratified the tentative police contract pushed by Mayor Jenny Durkan and the Seattle Police Officers Guild (SPOG), despite deep concerns about disciplinary changes in the agreement raised by a federal judge, a police oversight panel and two dozen community groups.
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Shepherd’s arbitration ruling ultimately wasn’t issued publicly until Nov. 20, a full week after the council approved the new police labor contract.
At the time, a spokesman for City Attorney Pete Holmes said the decision had been delayed due to “a number of technical and procedural questions, including the difficulty of reinstating an employee that has been without training or police work experience for four years.”
The City Attorney’s Office reiterated that position Friday, insisting those issues were the reason for seeking the delay of the release of the 35-page decision reinstating Shepherd to the police force.
But in interviews last week, Shepherd said he learned about the arbitration decision a few days after the new police contract’s approval when his union’s vice president, Sgt. Rich O’Neill, told him the delay had to do with politics over the contentious police contract.
“He said, ‘The decision was made two-and-a-half weeks ago, but we were worried about leaks,’ ” Shepherd recounted. “It was delayed because of the contract, that’s what he said. That’s the only reason why they held it, the politics. It’s just a cop-hating town right now. And I was thinking, hey, what about my rights?”
Mark Prentice, a spokesman for Durkan, said in an email Friday the mayor “was first informed of the final Shepherd decision during the week of November 19 and was not involved in any discussions on its timing.”
The city emails, obtained Jan. 10 by The Seattle Times via a Public Records Act request, primarily consist of exchanges between the arbitrator and the city’s and SPOG’s representatives. They do not explicitly state the delay to issue the arbitration ruling occurred because of the City Council’s impending police contract vote, but reference “outside matters regarding negotiations.”
The exchanges show that Hillary McClure, a lawyer for the police union, initially asked for a discussion about “logistics” in an Oct. 31 email to Jane Wilkinson, the arbitrator overseeing Shepherd’s case. Also copied on that email were Assistant City Attorney Amy Lowen and private attorney Jeff Bruce, working under contract for Holmes.
“The parties understand that you are in the process of finalizing the decision,” McClure wrote to the arbitrator. “We are jointly requesting to have a phone call with you before the issuance regarding some logistics.”
The next day, Wilkinson emailed Assistant Police Chief Lesley Cordner and Officer Suzanne Parton, the department’s and guild’s respective representatives in the arbitration case, informing them about the lawyers’ request to talk. “It’s an unusual situation, to say the least,” Wilkinson wrote. “I’ve been arbitrating since 1990 and it’s a first.”
A few days later, in a Nov. 4 email to Wilkinson and Cordner, Parton referenced the delay and questioned the political motivations behind it.
“This interference in the arbitration process is unacceptable and possibly unethical,” wrote Parton. “This process is supposed to be impartial and objective … I simply do not see how delaying the process for some political purpose is appropriate.”
“I hear you, Suzie,” Wilkinson responded the next morning. “I’m not thrilled about the delay either. However, I feel legally bound to the parties’ stipulations.”
On Nov. 8, the arbitrator then summarized for Cordner and Parton that the city’s and guild’s lawyers had agreed in a conference call to put off the required signatures to finalize Shepherd’s reinstatement until Nov. 19. “This is because they need to iron out some issues regarding outside matters regarding negotiations,” Wilkinson wrote. “I think both of you understand that part better.”
The City Attorney’s Office said Friday those negotiations referred to Shepherd’s return to the workplace, not the collective-bargaining talks. Spokesman Dan Nolte declined to speculate on what Parton was talking about in her emails, and said attorney-client privilege prevented him from talking about whether a delay to get past the council vote was discussed, “No matter how much I’d like to.”
Wilkinson and Parton separately declined to comment for this story, and Cordner did not respond to a request for comment.
O’Neill, the SPOG vice president, also did not respond to requests for comment. A powerful and polarizing figure, he is a former guild president who led a successful effort in 2016 to vote down a previous proposed contract. He then returned to the union’s leadership as vice president and took over the contract negotiations amid a shake-up in which the guild president was ousted and replaced by Officer Kevin Stuckey.
Stuckey, when informed Thursday about the email exchanges, said he had no knowledge of their contents and declined further comment.
McClure, the guild attorney, also declined any comment.
Police Chief Carmen Best, referring to the email exchanges, said at no time did the “conversation come to my ears” and referred other questions to the City Attorney’s Office.
Shepherd was fired in 2016 after an internal investigation into his 2014 domestic violence arrest of Miyekko Durden-Bosley, then 23. As Shepherd was placing her into the back of a patrol car, she swore at the officer and kicked him. Shepherd responded by punching her in the face, fracturing the bone around her eye.
Durden-Bosley later settled a civil lawsuit against the city for $195,000.
Then-Chief Kathleen O’Toole fired Shepherd for excessive force. The police guild appealed on behalf of Shepherd, who contends he acted within policy after being assaulted. The appeal sent the case to the Disciplinary Review Board, a three-member panel consisting of an outside arbitrator (Wilkinson), a department representative (Cordner) and a union representative (Parton).
At the time the arbitration was concluding, the Community Police Commission (CPC), a citizen panel, voted Oct. 17 to urge the City Council to reject the proposed contract. It cited rollbacks in landmark police-accountability legislation passed by the council in 2017, including watering down changes in the disciplinary-appeal system.
The commission was created as part of a 2012 consent decree between the city and Department of Justice (DOJ), requiring the Police Department to adopt sweeping reforms to address DOJ findings that officers too often used excessive force.
During the period of time the Shepherd arbitration findings were being withheld from the public, the federal judge overseeing the consent decree expressed deep concerns about the tentative contract. During a Nov. 5 court hearing, U.S. District Court Judge James Robart warned that if the City Council approved the contract, he would look closely at whether it follows the “spirit” and “purpose” of the federally mandated reforms.
Robart has since asked the city and DOJ for more information on Shepherd’s case, the Police Department’s disciplinary system and the impact of the guild contract on the 2017 legislation.
Also during the delay, 24 community groups urged the City Council to reject the guild’s proposed contract. Among those who signed a letter to the council were representatives of El Centro de la Raza, the ACLU of Washington, Mothers for Police Accountability, the Public Defender Association and the Asian Counseling and Referral Service. The letter cited the rollback of hard-earned police-accountability and disciplinary reforms in the 2017 legislation.
On the eve of the council vote, Best and former Councilmember Tim Burgess, an influential figure on police reform, urged passage while the local chapter of the NAACP announced it would oppose the deal.
The council voted 8-1 to approve the six-year contract, retroactive to 2015.
The vote came after weeks of intense lobbying by Durkan, who touted the deal as an opportunity to financially reward officers who had gone nearly four years without raises while securing vital reforms such as body-worn cameras and the creation of a civilian inspector general with broad oversight powers.
Later, after the arbitration decision was announced calling for Shepherd’s reinstatement, the city appealed and declined to reinstate Shepherd or pay him, pending that case. Last week, a judge agreed to hear the appeal.
Prentice noted that Durkan disagreed with the arbitration decision and believes Shepherd should have been fired.
“She, Chief Best and City Attorney Holmes agreed that the decision would be appealed and Shepherd would not be reinstated,” Prentice said. “This case is an example of why the mayor successfully insisted on eliminating the Discipline Review Board process during negotiations on the new agreement.”
City Councilmember Lisa Herbold, who voted to ratify the contract but favored leaving room to later revisit the appeal system, denounced the delay in releasing the arbitrator’s decision.
“The idea that the parties to this negotiation would withhold information because they thought our knowing it would impact our vote is reprehensible and, insulting, because it suggests that the council is unaware of the serious problems with the appeal process and the injustice resulting from it — knowledge that led us to work with the CPC to change that process in the 2017 accountability ordinance …,” Herbold said Saturday.