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Take-it-or-leave-it contract spotlights police unions’ power

A Seattle Police Department vehicle responds to a call with its sirens on while driving westbound on Denny Way in Seattle. Credit: Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut

When former Seattle Mayor Ed Murray stood on the steps of City Hall last summer to celebrate the passing of legislation designed to hold cops accountable, the awkward open secret was that, unless the city’s two police unions signed off, much of the legislation would never actually take effect.

That union approval would ride on police contracts negotiated with the city. And because those negotiations are highly secretive, only those directly involved had any idea what the chances were of the reforms going through.

The first of those two contracts, negotiated by the Seattle Police Management Association (SPMA), which represents police captains and lieutenants, was released last week. The contract affirms much of the reform legislation, but if the City Council signs off, it will also roll back certain provisions.

It’s a reminder that, for all the work done to overhaul the Seattle Police Department, none of it is final without the unions’ approval.

The accountability legislation passed earlier this year was the result of years of work spurred by a federal mandate to eradicate unconstitutional policing in the Seattle Police Department. It changed a secretive and some say lax appeals process and added significant civilian oversight of the police department, among a slew of other provisions.

The new contract affirms many of the most important provisions of that legislation. For example, supervisors in the Office of Police Accountability, the department’s disciplinary arm, will be civilian.

The contract has received praise from Councilmember Lorena Gonzalez, Mayor Tim Burgess and, to a certain extent, members of the Community Police Commission, an advisory body created out of federally mandated reforms.

But there are changes as well, the main one being how captains and lieutenants may appeal disciplinary actions. The accountability legislation was built to create just one track for appeals, to kill the cushy appeals process. The most problematic of these appeals processes will still be abolished, but the SPMA contract does allow for another avenue: a randomly selected arbitrator.

As it’s written, it’s unclear if arbitration hearing would be open to the public. Ian Warner, legal counsel for the Mayor’s Office, told the Seattle Weekly it would be.

There’s also language that could lead to ambiguity around what accountability steps can be taken and when and what level of proof is required to sustain an allegation against an officer. 

But while there were always going to be disagreements around the final agreement, the SPMA contract spotlights the thud with which these contracts can land. Early on, the CPC advocated for having “technical advisors” in the room during contract negotiations — well short of opening negotiations to the public, but an avenue to widen the circle of people who understand the negotiations and can offer advice.

But that didn’t happen; the proposed provision never made it into the legislation, and, for groups on the outside, like the CPC, the negotiations are a wind-up car that proceeds without them. Now, there’s no opportunity for edits; it’s a take-it-or-leave-it scenario, and leaving it really isn’t an option.

The City Council will vote whether to approve the contract next week, but the reality is that anything other than approval could have significant repercussions.

Captain Joe Kessler, a representative of SPMA at both the contract negotiating table and on the CPC, said Thursday that if the City Council did not approve the contract, the whole thing would likely be thrown out and the process could go to arbitration, which could end in a contract that backs out of even more of the reforms passed by the City Council last summer.

“Make no mistake: If this contract does not go through, I suspect there will be no ability to negotiate,” he told his fellow commissioners. “Legislation is out in any form, because it will end up going to arbitration because there is no other way. … I don’t know where we go from here if the contract is not approved. It’s highly likely it will … be at impasse and then the legislation goes away.”

Among the CPC members, there seemed to be an understanding that Kessler was not bluffing. “[The contract says what it says and so to take a step backward at this point, kind of no matter whose side you’re on in all of this or what you think the contract should say, the ramifications are big,” said CPC member Lisa Daugaard. “Under most circumstances, for the council to vote no would be an extraordinary step that certainly would be argued to be an unfair labor practice.”

That left the Community Police Commission with an awkward choice: recommend that the city council approve a contract that upends some key pieces of the legislation they helped author, or recommend a ‘no’ vote and risk losing all the progress made under the proposed new contract or even the legislation in its entirety.

The situation had some CPC members talking about how the city can make police collective bargaining negotiations more transparent. “It seems obvious, all the more so now, how valuable it would be to ask these questions before the agreement is finalized rather than after,” said Daugaard. “Then you’re not having those conversations when it’s really too late to do anything about that.”

In the end, the CPC voted to not recommend either a ‘yes ‘or ‘no’ vote and, as one commissioner put it, to “stand pat.” But they did vote to speak publicly about why they feel the pieces left out or changed were important. Additionally, they voted to advocate on behalf of including their own advisors through more of the process. Because although SPMA has its contract, the more well-known and maligned Seattle Police Officers Guild does not. 

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