As the city of Seattle awaits a federal judge’s ruling on its police-accountability proposal, the Seattle City Council held a public hearing Wednesday in advance of contract talks with the union representing police lieutenants and captains.
Among those who stepped to the microphone was longtime Seattle attorney Jeffery Robinson, now deputy legal director in the national office of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). He also is a close friend, former law partner and strong backer of Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan, who is immersed in a political struggle to bring the police department out from under federal oversight.
Robinson’s remarks at the hearing appeared to undercut the mayor’s proposal to look to other cities for answers. The next day, Durkan’s office disputed any notion that Robinson’s comments were meant as criticism of her plan, and after a phone call with the mayor, Robinson said his remarks had nothing to do with the mayor’s plan.
Durkan’s proposal stemmed from a May court ruling that found the city partly out of compliance with a 2012 consent decree with the Department of Justice. The agreement required the police department to address allegations of excessive force and biased policing.
U.S. District Judge James Robart cited deficiencies in the city’s contract with the Seattle Police Officers Guild (SPOG) that allowed an outside arbitrator to overturn the firing of an officer who had punched a handcuffed woman. The deficiencies, Robart concluded, undermined public trust in the police department’s disciplinary system, and he ordered the city to develop a “methodology” to fix them.
Durkan’s answer to that includes hiring outside experts to look at police-accountability practices in 20 other cities, calling it a “full, data-driven examination” that would help the city achieve a more effective system for accountability.
In court papers filed last month, city attorneys informed the judge the mayor is willing to make changes in the disciplinary and appeal process “top priorities” — but not until the next round of negotiations with SPOG begins early next year over a new contract in 2021.
Her plan drew immediate opposition from community groups and the Community Police Commission (CPC), a citizen advisory panel created as part of the consent decree. They urged the city to swiftly seek talks with SPOG.
The city has not reopened contract talks with the union, which has the strong backing of other city unions and the Martin Luther King Jr. County Labor Council.
The ACLU of Washington, which has joined in the criticism of Durkan’s plan, helped arrange Robinson’s testimony in front of a joint hearing of the City Council’s public-safety and labor committees. In an email flagging the hearing, a spokesman noted the “ACLU national office’s concerns about police accountability in Seattle and what that means for the city and the country.”
In his brief remarks, Robinson did not specifically mention Durkan’s proposal. He said, “We shouldn’t be looking at other cities to see what they have done, because quite frankly, there are no other cities in America that are doing this right. The eyes of America are going to be on Seattle, because Seattle is seen as a leader in this area, and I am asking you to please understand that. Don’t look at what other cities do, look at what should be done here.”
Robinson cited an analysis from Campaign Zero — which advocates for nationwide police reform — stating that most police contracts in 81 of the 100 largest U.S. cities had provisions he called “roadblocks to accountability.”
Robinson warned that when police contracts are signed “without truly taking into account input from communities most impacted by police practices, it sends a very clear message to the community: You will have no say in how we police you.” He said he didn’t believe that was the message the council wanted to send.
“I am a former Teamster who drove a forklift in Milwaukee, so I am pro-union, but being pro-union does not mean having an accountability system that does not hold police officers accountable,” Robinson said.
Asked for comment on Robinson’s remarks regarding other cities, Stephanie Formas, Durkan’s chief of staff, initially responded in an email on Thursday, “Sorry – not sure I am connecting the dots about his comment or why you’re [looking] for the Mayor’s response.”
Brian Robick, communications director for the ACLU of Washington, on Thursday said Robinson’s comments related to Durkan’s proposal.
Formas called back to say that Durkan had just gotten off the phone with Robinson and that he had told her he had not read the court papers submitted to Robart. Formas said that showed no connection between Robinson’s council remarks and the mayor’s proposal.
Elaborating in a later email to The Seattle Times, Formas wrote, “… Mayor spoke with Jeff who confirmed that he had not read the latest court filings (including the various proposed methodologies), and he was not testifying about the Consent Decree.”
Formas added: “As you know, Jenny and Jeff have both worked for better policing for decades — first as law partners trying cases together and now in their respective positions. The Mayor and Jeff are in absolute agreement: Seattle is a national leader and what we do sets the standard in so many areas from civil rights to worker protections, to community based policing. Seattle can learn from others. Looking at what other cities are doing to learn better and different ways to improve policing is the smart thing to do. But at the same time, you don’t do something contrary to reform just because another city is doing it.”
Robick, of the ACLU, called The Times back Thursday to retract his earlier statement that Robinson’s remarks to the council were related to Durkan’s proposal.
Shortly after, Robinson called The Times to back Formas’ account, saying his remarks were not directed at Durkan’s proposal.
Robinson, who spends half the year in New York, said his comments generally related to national police-accountability issues, and that his reference to other cities did not mean that he opposed obtaining information from them.
Moreover, he added, he would not hesitate to criticize Durkan if he felt she was wrong, but would do so only after carefully studying the issue and laying out his reasons.
On Friday, Robick sent an email to The Times saying that he had consulted with Alison Holcomb, the ACLU of Washington’s political director, who attended the hearing with Robinson.
Robick wrote that Holcomb confirmed that Robinson was briefed on problems related to the police contracts, not on details of the consent decree or Durkan’s proposal to the federal judge.
“Wednesday’s hearing was about City Councilmembers’ approach to the development of an opening proposal for [Seattle Police Management Association] collective bargaining, not for anything related to the consent decree, and that was the issue Jeff agreed to address and did address.
“As I stated yesterday, it was my mistake to say that Jeff was commenting on the Mayor’s position rather than on the fact that Seattle needs to be a national leader, not a follower, in the area of negotiating with police unions on the issue of police accountability systems,” Robick wrote.
Staff reporter Paige Cornwell contributed to this report.