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Police union challenges Mayor Ed Murray on outside hiring of administrators

Interim police chief Harry Bailey (left) and Mayor Ed Murray with police chief nominee Kathleen O'Toole Credit: Credit: Allyce Andrew

A Seattle police union is pushing back against city legislation enacted earlier this year that allows assistant chiefs to be hired from outside the department's ranks.

The Seattle Police Management Association, which represents captains and lieutenants, filed an unfair labor practice complaint against the city with the state's Public Employment Relations Commission on May 7. Mayor Ed Murray signed the legislation in January. The measure changed a 1978 city ordinance that had said the chief of police could only appoint assistant chiefs from the ranks of captains and lieutenants within the department. In the complaint, SPMA asks the commission to issue an order requiring the city to restore the original ordinance.

"We have no intention at this time of withdrawing the complaint," said Seattle Police Capt. Eric Sano, president of SPMA.

Last Monday, the mayor nominated Boston's former police commissioner, Kathleen O'Toole, to be Seattle's next police chief. Murray told Crosscut this week that he is asking O'Toole to bring in at least one outside assistant chief.

In the interview with Crosscut on Tuesday, the mayor also said that there could be tough negotiations between the city and its police unions on the horizon. Murray stressed that the unions will likely need to make concessions , in order for the city to comply with a federally-mandated police reform process that is currently underway,

As for the hiring policy, Murray said that Merrick Bobb, the monitor overseeing Seattle's police reforms, had made it clear that Seattle needed to change its prohibition on bringing in command staff from outside the department.

The department's seven assistant chiefs, known collectively as the command staff, are each in charge of a bureau. Each bureau oversees different types of department activities, such as precinct operations, reform compliance, or homeland security. Annual salaries for those who have held assistant chief posts in 2014 have almost uniformly been $185,900, according to police department budget documents obtained through public disclosure requests. 

When the legislation changing the hiring ordinance first surfaced late last year in the City Council, SPMA wanted to negotiate over it with the city.

"Nobody was willing to bargain with us," SPMA's Sano said. He adds: "It was never our position that the new chief should not be able to bring in outside assistant chiefs."

According to Murray, SPMA asked him to restrict the chief to only two outside hires. But he said no.

"That is a decision that has to be left up to the chief of police," Murray said. "And I was unwilling to make trades related to something around reform."

While Sano does not believe that a new chief would immediately sweep aside and replace the entire command staff, he is concerned that over time additional outsiders will be brought in, narrowing the career paths for the department's captains and lieutenants.

"Next thing you know, we don't have any advancement opportunities," he said.

An unfair labor practice complaint manager at the Public Employment Relations Commission will review SPMA's complaint, which centers on what the document calls the city's "unilateral change" in promotion opportunities for lieutenants and captains. The complaint says the city was required to bargain over the change. If the manager decides there is a "cause for action," then the complaint will be assigned to one of the commission's examiners and a hearing will be scheduled. SPMA will have one chance to revise the complaint if the manager initially finds no cause for action. If the manager ultimately determines that the complaint is unfounded, it will be dismissed.

The Seattle City Attorney's Office believes that the change to the ordinance is not subject to collective bargaining and does not constitute an unfair labor practice, a spokesperson for the office confirmed.

Providing a backdrop for the complaint is the police management association's long-expired labor contract with the city. The contract was effective through Dec. 31, 2011. Sarah Butler, a city personnel department spokesperson, said that a new contract is under negotiation but she could not offer details. The city's contract with the Seattle Police Officers Guild, which represents sergeants and patrol officers, expires at the end of this year.

"I think we're headed toward some pretty tough negotiations," Mayor Murray said. "Maybe the toughest in living memory."

Altering the department's disciplinary system and shifting some decision-making authority away from captains and lieutenants, toward assistant chiefs and civilian oversight staff, the mayor said, are two broad areas bargaining would focus on.

"If we are going to fulfill the requirements of the consent decree and the monitor's instructions," Murray said, "we are going to ask for some significant take-backs" from the unions. The consent decree is one of the primary documents guiding the police reform agreement between Seattle and the U.S. Department of Justice.

“I don’t know what he means,” Detective Ron Smith, president of the police officers guild said Wednesday, when asked about the mayor's comments. “We haven’t even discussed getting together to negotiate.”

Smith said he is interested to see what the city would like to bargain over, and dismissed any suggestion that the union is creating obstacles for the reform process. Last week, at the event where O'Toole's nomination was announced, Smith said of the upcoming collective bargaining process: "I'm open to anything."

As for what the guild would like to see discussed during future negotiations, Smith mentioned officer hours, and more specifically switching the current 9-hour patrol shift schedule to a 10-hour workday. That schedule change would allow for later start times on the department's early morning shift. The current schedules, he noted, require officers on that shift to arrive at work around 3 a.m. "That's brutal,” Smith said, suggesting that a 5 a.m. start time would be easier on the officers working the early patrols and their families. 

The command staff positions affected by the changed hiring policy have undergone substantial reshuffling in recent months as interim Chief of Police Harry C. Bailey has demoted and promoted assistant chiefs, and some long-time members of the department's top brass retired.

Another round of reassignments took place last week. Bailey assigned Nick Metz to command the patrol operations bureau. Metz was overseeing the field support bureau, which includes human resources, information technology, “predictive policing” and the department’s 911 call center. Assistant Chief Paul McDonagh was moved from the homeland security bureau to take the reins of field support. And Joe Kessler, who had the patrol operations post now occupied by Metz, took McDonagh's place at the homeland security bureau.

“Change is normal in any organization," Bailey said in a statement.

The mayor would likely apply Bailey's remark to the changed hiring policy and the upcoming police union negotiations as well.

Referring to the unions, Murray said, "My hope is that they will, and we will, come to a place that actually reforms the police department and expedites the day that we are no longer under a court order."

"I don't know if that will happen," he added. "But that's my hope."

Check out Crosscut’s City Beat page for all the news and commentary about Seattle.

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