Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan strongly supports the tentative contract with the Seattle Police Officers Guild, while a citizen panel says it undermines hard-earned reforms.
Mayor Jenny Durkan plans to be in federal court Monday afternoon when the city’s attorneys defend a tentative contract with Seattle’s rank-and-file police union, a long-delayed deal that Durkan strongly endorses but that a citizen commission has denounced as a sellout to the community and a boon to the union.
Achieving labor peace with the Seattle Police Officers Guild (SPOG) has been a top priority since Durkan took office late last year, and she appeared to be on her way to a signature accomplishment when the two sides struck the agreement in August after 3 ½ years of difficult negotiations.
Durkan called the proposed contract a fair deal that provides long-overdue pay raises to officers who helped the city through the thicket of federal oversight, while maintaining key reforms such as body-worn cameras on officers.
Three weeks ago, after the guild’s 1,300-plus officers and sergeants voted overwhelmingly in favor of the deal, Durkan called a news conference to announce she was forwarding the contract details to the City Council for what appeared to be their approval.
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With Police Chief Carmen Best and Guild President Kevin Stuckey set to be at her side, it had all the makings of a victory lap.
But shortly before the news conference, the Community Police Commission (CPC), an official advisory body of the city, released a brief but stunning statement saying the proposed agreement “gives up” crucial reforms incorporated in landmark police-accountability legislation passed by the City Council last year.
The air went out of the news conference.
Two days later, the commission’s citizen members unanimously voted to urge the City Council to reject the proposal on the grounds it watered down hard-earned disciplinary rules for officers.
Monday’s court hearing before U.S District Judge James Robart stems from his role presiding over a 6-year-old consent decree between the city and the Department of Justice, in which the city agreed to change its policies and procedures after the DOJ found Seattle’s police officers too often resorted to excessive force and displayed troubling signs of biased policing.
While the labor contract largely falls outside Robart’s purview, it must comply with the consent decree. The same applies to the accountability legislation, which grew out of a scandal four years ago involving reversals of officer discipline.
Robart won’t issue major decisions Monday. But he will provide a forum for the arguments to be aired, including the views of federal attorneys, and perhaps will offer his thoughts, in what could shape the upcoming debate in the City Council.
The stakes are high. In January, Robart found the Police Department to be in full compliance with the consent decree, triggering a two-year review period in which the city must sustain the reforms and show they are locked in place.
If the city is successful, it could be freed from federal oversight in 15 months.
Last week, the Police Department filed assessments of its ongoing work, including audits of its use-of-force investigations and internal supervision and a review of its stops-and-detention policy. Also included was a report showing that despite a surge of calls involving people in crisis between Jan. 1, 2017, and June 30 of this year, fewer than 2 percent led to use of force.
In almost 80 percent of nearly 16,000 contacts, an officer certified in crisis intervention training responded, the report said.
The DOJ lauded the work, saying, “For each of the areas assessed by the City under the consent decree, both the DOJ and the Court’s independent monitor, Merrick Bobb, concluded that the City has sustained compliance with the Consent Decree.”
Even if that continues, the outcome could be affected if the City Council rejects the tentative contract with SPOG, which, according to the city, would throw the negotiations into a maze of labor and legal proceedings that could last years.
If a deadlock exists at the end of the review period, Robart likely wouldn’t be able to rule on the city’s status since he would still need to evaluate whether any provisions of a new contract conflict with the consent decree.
In court papers submitted to Robart, the CPC, which was created as part of the consent decree and played a major role in the accountability legislation, wrote that it was “dismayed to see community priorities set aside at the bargaining table, in favor of measures that apparently were more palatable to SPOG and/or expedient to City leadership.”
Appeals by officers fired for conduct that carries a stigma could be reviewed under a higher burden of proof, making it harder to uphold terminations, the commission wrote. The city counters that arbitrators have long had that option for other city employees.
In a list of other examples, the commission also cited a provision that allows officers to use vacation time or other accrued time if they are suspended without pay, as long as the suspension is less than eight days, which many are.
Overall, the commission argues, the proposed contract undercuts the consent decree’s core values and objectives — transparency and public confidence in the Police Department.
One solution is to allow “important wage adjustments” to go forward while reopening negotiations on accountability measures, the commission wrote.
City attorneys, in their submission, maintain the tentative agreement is consistent with the consent decree and clears the deck of various labor issues.
If ratified, SPOG has agreed to drop a labor complaint it filed after former Mayor Ed Murray unilaterally imposed the use of body-worn cameras, they wrote.
If the council rejects the contract, the camera issue could get tied up in lengthy negotiations, including litigation in which use of the cameras might be suspended, the attorneys wrote.
Other provisions, they add, allow more flexibililty on how long the clock may run on internal investigations, and give the police chief more authority to transfer officers for performance reasons.
Federal attorneys, in court papers submitted to Robart, said the tentative agreement is “generally consistent” with the consent decree and in many instances “solidifies” its measures. But more information is needed on the burden-of-proof issue, they wrote.
The City Council plans to vote Nov. 13 on the six-year contract, which would be retroactive to 2015 and run through 2020.
Seven of nine council members must vote in favor of the agreement before it can be ratified.