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Seattle police accountability: What does the public want?

Nick Licata

A version of this article appeared earlier on the writer's Urban Politics blog.

The City Council and the Office of Professional Accountability Review Board will jointly sponsor a public hearing Tuesday on what the city should consider as it begins labor negotiations with the Seattle Police Officers' Guild. The council is directed to hold the hearing under an ordinance adopted in 2008 and sponsored by myself and Councilmember Tim Burgess.

The comments from the public hearing will help inform deliberations on the upcoming negotiations.

Police accountability has been a longtime interest of mine. At my urgings, the City Council sponsored its first public hearing on the city’s police accountability system in 2006. It was called by some an "historic moment." It was the first time that a public hearing was held in advance of Seattle police union labor negotiations on a new labor contract. The hearing provided elected officials an opportunity to hear directly from the public about what to include in the new contract with Seattle Police Officers Guild.  

The 2008 legislation directs the Council and the review board to hold a public hearing on police accountability at least 90 days before the city begins collective bargaining on a new contract with the Police Officer’s Guild (SPOG) or the Seattle Police Management Association, representing officers. The City and SPOG will be beginning labor negotiations in the upcoming months.

Because police accountability is a “condition of employment,” many aspects of it must be bargained with the police labor unions before it is included in a labor contract. Labor negotiations are very different from the usual legislative process and they are confidential.

Prior to the city beginning negotiations with SPOG is the appropriate time to hear from the public regarding their thoughts, concerns and issues on the subject of police accountability. That information can then guide the city's Labor Relations Policy Committee in determining the broad goals for contract negotiations. One issue that has been recently suggested as a goal for the upcoming negotiations relates to how the appellate and grievance processes stemming from complaints of possible misconduct fail to reflect the values of transparency and accountability underlying the OPA (Office of Professional Accountability). I have written about that issue in a recent Urban Politics.

The OPA Auditor, retired Judge Anne Levinson, has written a special review about the problem as well. She makes a number of very reasonable recommendations, among them to require that any hearings for police disciplinary cases be open to the public. But the recommendations are all important, and I encourage readers to review her report. Finally, the Community Police Commission (CPC) accountability workgroup is responsible for leading the CPC’s review of SPD’s accountability system, including the structure and practices of the OPA. They, too, will have important recommendations.

The city administration and the council develop the broad goals for contract negotiations for all of the city’s labor contracts. The Labor Relations Policy Committee has five council members and other members appointed by the executive. Under state law and city ordinance, the process for developing these goals for contract negotiations requires strict confidentiality. Confidentiality of what is being proposed, discussed and considered must be maintained to allow the parties to freely exchange ideas and work toward an agreement.

Once they begin, labor negotiations do not allow for public involvement. By law, the public is not a direct party to the process itself. The public interest is represented by the elected officials involved in the process.

After the next week’s public hearing the City Council, I intend to introduce, as we did in 2006, a resolution recognizing the content of the public input and saying that the city will consider in good faith whether and how to carry forward the interests expressed at the public hearing. 

The public hearing on renewal of Seattle Police Officer’s Guild contract will be held at 6 p.m., Tuesday, April 22, in the Council Chambers, at Seattle City Hall, 600 Fourth Ave.

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