Three Seattle City Council members sent a sharply worded letter to Mayor Jenny Durkan on Monday, rebuking what they describe as a recalcitrant strategy toward addressing police accountability flaws.
The highly unusual letter calls on Durkan to ask the powerful Seattle Police Officers Guild (SPOG) to reopen its contract with the city in order to fix deficiencies that prompted U.S. District Judge James Robart to find the city partly out of compliance with federally mandated reforms.
Durkan has hesitated to take that step, opting to form a five-member team of outside police consultants to help craft a response to the judge. Reform advocates fear that the mayor’s approach is aimed at convincing the judge that no changes are needed in the collective bargaining agreement (CBA). In their letter, the council members said Durkan’s actions could invite prolonged court oversight.
“We believe that so long as the Executive Branch doubles-down on the perspective that the CBA’s current terms related to arbitration, investigation timelines and subpoena powers should be satisfactory to the Court, then we run the risk of remaining out of Full and Effective Compliance and under Court supervision for many years to come,” the letter states.
Robart has cited concerns about the use of outside arbitrators to hear appeals by officers, manipulation of a 180-day deadline for completing internal investigations to help officers avoid discipline, and a narrowing of subpoena powers by the Police Department’s Office of Police Accountability.
Councilmember M. Lorena González, chair of the council’s public-safety committee, provided The Seattle Times a copy of the letter on Sunday, which also was signed by Councilmembers Teresa Mosqueda and Lisa Herbold.
In an interview Sunday, González said the mayor’s office had not consulted the nine-member council about its strategy, despite the council’s crafting of landmark police-accountability legislation in 2017 that included reforms regarding appeals, timelines and subpoenas. Those reforms were eliminated by the collective bargaining agreement signed in November.
González said the letter was motivated by concerns the city is backsliding on reforms and needs to get “back on track.”
At a Monday afternoon news conference outside the U.S. Courthouse, González said she received a phone call in the morning from SPOG President Kevin Stuckey asking to have a one-on-one meeting she characterized as “beginning the process of having communications,” but not negotiations.
Robart ruled last year that the city had reached full compliance with a 2012 consent decree with the Department of Justice, requiring the Police Department to address allegations that officers too often resorted to excessive force and displayed troubling evidence of biased policing.
But in a May ruling, after an arbitrator overturned the firing of an officer who punched a handcuffed woman, Robart found the city had fallen partly out of compliance. He cited deficiencies resulting from the city’s contract with SPOG, even as he praised the Police Department’s overall efforts.
The council members’ letter to Durkan says that if SPOG won’t agree to talks, the city should pursue changes in the next contract when the current agreement expires in 2020 and inform Robart of that plan.
“Ultimately, we would like there to be a fluid back-and-forth communication between your office and our offices so that the City Council can provide meaningful input into the development of the City’s legal strategy and the development of the City’s final positions that will be represented to the Court,” the letter said.
Robart, who originally ordered the city to produce a blueprint for addressing the deficiencies by July 15, granted the city’s request last week to extend the deadline until Aug. 15.
City attorneys advised Robart that the outside consultants would help in shaping the response.
The council members, in their letter, said they only learned of the consultants’ role through media reports, which were first disclosed by The Times. They said they have “serious concerns” about the scope of the team’s work.
At the news conference, Diane Narasaki, a reform leader, called the use of consultants from other parts of the country a “slap in the face” to the community and the Community Police Commission (CPC), a citizen-advisory body created as part of the consent decree, and the work they have already done to fix flaws.
The CPC’s co-chairs, Rev. Harriett Walden, Isaac Ruiz and Emma Catague, issued a statement Monday, saying, “The CPC co-chairs applaud Councilmembers Lorena González, Teresa Mosqueda, and Lisa Herbold for standing with community and fighting for the landmark police accountability reforms we’ve spent years working on together.”
Durkan spokesman Mark Prentice said in an email Monday the city will not propose any potential steps without hearing from the court’s monitor, the community and “accountability partners,” and without the “review and approval” of Robart.
“We have a binding Collective Bargaining Agreement and also are obligated to respect state law governing labor relations,” he added, without saying whether the city will ask SPOG to reopen the contract.
”The City looks forward to the opportunity to engage with the community to receive input on the development of our methodology for assessing the accountability regime,” he said. “We also look forward to engaging with the broader community as we respond to the Court’s order and ultimately, have the Consent Decree fully lifted.”