The Seattle Police Management Association demanded in a formal letter on Wednesday that the city begin bargaining over a proposed City Council bill that would allow the chief of police to fill high-ranking positions from outside of the department.
A city ordinance currently requires the chief to hire only lieutenants and captains from within the Seattle Police Department as assistant and deputy chiefs. Public Safety, Civil Rights and Technology Committee Chair Bruce Harrell and committee member Tim Burgess have sponsored a bill that would eliminate that rule. They believe the ordinance should be changed in order to attract top-notch police chief applicants and to improve the department’s performance. Mayor-elect Ed Murray has indicated that selecting a replacement for interim chief Jim Pugel will be one of his first orders of business after taking office in January.
The association's move could pose a hurdle for the council bill, which is intended to give the next chief of police more leeway when hiring what is commonly called command staff. But at a committee meeting on Wednesday, councilembers seemed determined to move the legislation forward and police management association leaders seemed open to compromise. And it appeared that any bargaining would fine-tune, rather than derail, the bill.
The Seattle Police Management Association, which is the union that represents lieutenants and captains, says that the bill touches on issues that are better left to labor negotiations, is poorly written and could weaken succession planning within the department.
"We’re not opposed to working with city," said police Capt. Eric Sano, the union's president. "We did not want to file the demand-to-bargain letter; there would’ve been an easier way to work with us to do this."
“You can come and change an ordinance," he said. "But if it affects our working conditions, we believe it’s mandatorily subject to bargaining.
In comments he made after the meeting, Burgess disagreed. “I don’t believe that it is a bargainable subject,” he told Crosscut. “These positions are not union represented positions, they never have been, we’re not changing that at all.”
The next step for the union now that they’ve filed the letter will be to meet with a city labor negotiator. “I can’t really get into what we want to negotiate with them," Sano said.
Burgess said that he hopes the demand-to-bargain letter will not affect the committee’s progress with the bill. He also said he is convinced that the current hiring rules deter police chief applicants.
“I’ve heard from enough individuals who are involved in national policing circles,” he said, “that this is a huge roadblock for us getting the kind of exceptional candidates we want.”
“The last process, four years ago, produced very few candidates that I would put in that exceptional category,” he added.
Murray cannot comment on the bill, his spokesman said in an email, “due to the one-mayor-at-a-time policy.”
Harrell has said that he believes infusing the department’s upper ranks with cops from outside the force is an important step as Seattle's federally mandated police reform process unfolds. A 2011 U.S. Department of Justice investigation found a pattern of excessive force violations among Seattle police officers and sparked the reforms.
In an interview on Tuesday, Harrell said, “Many of the top brass there, nearly all of them, have been in this department for decades and decades.”
“We are now in a culture of change,” he continued, “and many of the policies we are trying to change were no doubt developed and implemented by those people.”
Sano, the police management association president, thinks there are enough qualified officers within the department to fill deputy and assistant chief jobs even with the reform process underway. “There are plenty of people who are capable of stepping into those positions," he said. "We don’t have to go outside the department.”
“We have people who were born and raised in Seattle,” Sano added. “What are you going to do bring in people from Chicago, L.A.?”
Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!