A lively public hearing and a pending court case make it abundantly evident that Mayor Jenny Durkan and city leaders will face strong pressure to extract significant police-accountability reforms from the Seattle Police Officers Guild (SPOG) in upcoming contract talks.
At a hearing that nearly filled City Council chambers Thursday evening, a parade of speakers urged the council to seek reforms that fell away in the most recent labor agreement between the city and the rank-and-file union that represents more than 1,300 officers and sergeants.
In addition, two civilian watchdogs within the Police Department told the council they support changes.
The hearing came at a time when U.S. District Judge James Robart is awaiting a Dec. 13 response from the city, moved from Nov. 29, on how it plans to fix deficiencies he found in the current union contract. Those flaws prompted him to rule in May that the city was partially out of compliance with a 2012 consent decree with the Department of Justice to address allegations of excessive use of force and biased policing.
While the department has met key elements of the consent decree, the judge cited contract provisions that allowed an outside arbitrator to overturn the firing of an officer who had punched a handcuffed woman. The arbitrator’s ruling, challenged by the city, was later overturned by a King County judge.
Robart also flagged artificial deadlines to complete internal investigations, a lack of subpoena power to obtain information about officers, and proof requirements in appeals of discipline.
Negotiations on a new contract could begin in early March. Although the two parties signed the current contract in late 2018, it was retroactive to 2015 and expires at the end of 2020.
Robart’s ruling was repeatedly invoked by speakers at the hearing, as well as by the Rev. Harriett Walden, co-chair of the Community Police Commission (CPC), a citizen advisory body created as part of the consent decree.
They noted that issues raised by Robart had been addressed in a landmark 2017 ordinance passed by the council. However, those reforms fell off the table during collective bargaining, prompting the CPC to oppose the current contract.
“This is our chance to fix what went wrong last time,” Walden said.
Community activist Shannon Chang scolded the city for its handling of the current contract, saying “collective bargaining and police accountability are not mutually exclusive.” Her comment drew loud applause.
Lisa Judge, the Seattle Police Department’s inspector general, told the council she was supportive of measures that increase transparency in the internal discipline and appeals process, as well as improvements in the way arbitrators are selected to ensure “fairness, objectivity and expertise.” Appeals are now held behind closed doors.
She said she also needs subpoena power. “The critical ability to obtain information necessary to carry out oversight functions cannot be overstated,” she said.
Relying on cooperation is not enough, Judge said, “if the day comes when SPD is not so keen to participate in oversight efforts or collaborate with partners.”
More broadly, Judge said while her office has unfettered access to SPD operations, an accountability system that requires bargaining for oversight authority every few years is “not a sustainable model.”
Judge and Andrew Myerberg, director of the Office of Police Accountability, the department’s internal-investigation unit, said complex contract language requiring internal investigations to be completed in 180 days needs to be clarified and simplified to make clear when the clock starts running.
Myerberg said he also would like to see mandatory rotations in the department to provide more opportunities for officers to work in specialized units and build morale.
With the council dominated by progressives already supportive of many of the proposals, including Councilmember M. Lorena González, who oversees public-safety matters, Durkan is almost certain to be aggressively lobbied to seek sweeping changes.
In an earlier court filing, the city said it will make the items cited by Robart “top priorities” during negotiations with SPOG.
But Durkan also will face the sway of the labor community, one of her biggest backers, which has fiercely supported SPOG’s collective bargaining rights.
Kenny Stuart, president of the union representing Seattle firefighters, expressed his support of police accountability but voiced his concern that some of the proposals intrude on the bargaining and due process rights of officers.
“Collective bargaining is a fundamental element of labor relations and the progressive movement,” he told the council, characterizing the measures a threat to all city employees.
Kevin Stuckey, SPOG’s president, attended the hearing but did not respond to request for comment.