City policies on police: Can our elected leaders make the calls?

Seattle's contract with its officers explains a lot about the power police wield over their own conduct. But we've elected leaders expecting them to guide the affairs of the city, including its most expensive department.

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Seattle City Council member Tim Burgess.

Seattle's contract with its officers explains a lot about the power police wield over their own conduct. But we've elected leaders expecting them to guide the affairs of the city, including its most expensive department.

The untimely death of John T. Williams at the hands of Seattle Police Officer Ian Birk has aroused widespread concern over police accountability.  We won’t know for some time what the financial implications of that tragedy will be to the city, but few believe the resignation of Birk has fully addressed the way Seattle police deal with decisions about lethal force, or quieted those who believe Williams' death wasn’t justified.

Whoever advised Mayor Mike McGinn to declare a John T. Williams Day, perhaps hoping it would "make it all better," only added another insult to the uproar.  People want answers and solutions, not a commemoration of an untimely death.

Police work, at its best, demands quick judgments be made. When the result is someone’s death that might have been avoided by different policies, different training, or by holding officers more accountable for their actions, the solutions must necessarily come from a much more intense, open discussion.  As it now stands, the police, not the city, make policy decisions.

We expect our elected leaders to become involved in policy decisions because, aside from the obvious life and death implications, the police department is the most costly aspect of our city government.  The high cost of pay, retirement, and benefits plus the legal judgments against the city have made the Seattle Police Department a major financial concern. There is little question that changes in police policies are necessary and will become a greater part of future discussions and contract negotiations with the Seattle Police Officers Guild.

To discover what in our police department needs reforming, the entire 77-page union contract between police officers and the the city is essential reading. The city-guild contract can be found here (in pdf form).

The contract covers 27 basic sections that deal with what you would expect: pay, hours, retirement, medical, and the like. By almost all standards it’s a very generous contract. About half of the 1,900 employees of the department make over $80,000 per year not counting outstanding retirement benefits. (Unlike Wisconsin, collective bargaining in Seattle couldn’t be better: The city even hires former union negotiators to bargain for its interests.)

Pay is based on years of service rather than performance.  Medical coverage is excellent by public or private standards.  The city pays 95 percent of health insurance and 100 percent of dental. Vacations and hours of work are spelled out and generous.  Paid time is set aside for union activity.  Uniforms are paid for, as well as guns and ammunition. The city must even pay for time spent at home to learn how to operate equipment like computers. The city pays for false-arrest insurance in case a careless officer gets the wrong guy.

Aside from the labor contract with the guild, there is a second contract with the Police Management Association.  Their contract with the city can be found here (also a pdf).  Pay is good, especially for senior officers. “COLA’s”  automatic pay increases are in place and most officers have received significant increases while other city employees have volunteered for pay reductions because of the recession.  Chief Diaz is paid $188,000.  Top staff receive $168,000 or so. They are paid about the same as the mayor.

The combined labor agreements, for all practical purposes, define almost all operations of our police department. But unlike contracts with most private sector unions, the city’s contract with the guild has significant sections dedicated to what management controls and oversight the city doesn't have. While a bus driver is required to submit to a drug test if involved in a fender-bender, the city can’t require officers to submit to any kind of drug test or breathalyzer test. This includes testing for use of steroids, testosterone, or anti-psychotic medications. The anti-testing clause applies both to random testing and testing that might occur after an event like the Williams shooting.

The union contract defines an Employee Involvement Committee that must approve management decisions, new tactics, or equipment. Sections of the contract spell out, in astounding detail, how the city must behave. While there is no language in the contract on the subject, the union has been relentless in insisting that they can hire attorneys to defend officers at public expense. Another clause in the contract covers lower-paid civilian employees who might be hired for office work, potentially displacing higher paid sworn officers. Overall, the city has relinquished enormous oversight in how an officer can be sanctioned for misconduct.

Adding to the city's union contract with the guild is an array of state labor laws, lobbied for by the union, which serve to limit the ability of the city to take quick action against an employee without extensive and elaborate due process.

The city's willingness to sign a contract that essentially gives the police the ability to regulate their own behavior and create their own operational procedures suggests the strong possibility that the city is intimidated by the power of the guild. The process and paperwork necessary to sanction an officer is staggering. Rank-and-file guild members are outranked by a core of senior officers who have significant clout in the details of the negotiated agreement. The result is that guild-contract procedures restrict management along with chilling the ability for civilian oversight over misconduct.

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the guild’s efforts to protect officers' misconduct is part of the problem of policing. Why is the contract so dedicated to protecting those in their ranks who use what might be deemed unnecessary force is questionable when the much greater majority of officers seldom, if ever, need sanction? One can't help but wonder if the rank-and-file officer in a force organized around a military model agrees with, or has any direct involvement, in what senior guild officers are demanding in the contract.

Seattle has a group of seven appointed civilians who are charged with oversight of police conduct.  The group, known as the OPA Review Board, is part of the city police department's Office of Professional Accountability.

The board, as the most recent report by the OPA's auditor puts it, "plays the lead role in public outreach and education about the OPA system, solicits community input about issues and trends, can review closed files, and makes recommendations about police policies and procedures."

The union contract gives the guild the right to demand that one of the seven has been in law enforcement, another an active sworn officer and another member be a lawyer.  It further demands that the police department conduct an investigation and retain all background information on any member of the OPA panel.  Another clause advises that members of the panel be free of bias.  One wonders how that is interpreted?  Oh, yes and they all are required to never reveal any information they have obtained in an investigation.

In addition, there is the OPA auditor, who has oversight over the entire structure of accountability.  The recently appointed auditor is former Municipal Judge Anne Levinson. She is also a former deputy mayor and community leader with a record of public service.

Levinson, who isn’t part of the police department, is required by her job to release regular reports or summaries of police investigations and OPA investigations of misconduct.  Her first report is here, along with previous audit reports and other OPA documents. Levinson understands that there are a number factors which enter into both quality policing and the kind of systemic failures that create repeated problems.

Some problem situations have to do with what kind of officers are on the job. It is obvious that not everyone, even if trained for years, will have the character or instincts to be a good cop.  It’s highly likely that there are some who are simply in the wrong line of work. The trouble is whatever the qualities of excellent cops are, they are very difficult to define or detect when hiring new officers.

We know that some people grow up or are raised as bullies.  When the bully gets a job on the police force, he or she brings with them a good chance that at some point of stress they will be out of control.

One can make another argument that “the job made me do it.” Put any of us in high-stress situations every single day and it can change how we behave. We could also look at our judicial system. Any cop, who has spent every day of his or her life protecting the public and catching bad guys, can’t help but become frustrated when the justice systems appear to fail.

It’s impossible to overlook cultural or racial profiling.  The cop might say if you walked in my shoes and did what I’m required to do, you would think differently. No doubt true. By the same reasoning, the young black man taking a late-night walk and the young white woman out for a late-night run are perceived very differently by the police. There is a very high percentage one will be stopped for questioning.  Some might call it profiling, others might say it’s behavior that needs checking.  How it’s done makes all the difference.

A growing phenomenon is the militarization of police departments focused on the "war" on crime or drugs.  Also, hiring ex-military can't but influence behavior.  If we are engaged in a "war" in our cities, which of the people on the streets are the enemy?  Civilians define the rules of engagement for our military, but not in local police work. The Seattle police rely on a policy handbook written by the police department.

This document, however, does not include what exact details are involved in police training for the use of lethal force. Under what conditions are a pocket knife, a baseball bat, a car, a screwdriver, or a hammer in a position to harm an officer?  Twenty feet? Ten feet? Is the guideline "shoot to kill" always necessary? Should training policy in the use of lethal force include whether the subject might be mentally impaired, hard of hearing, or having a severe health crisis?

We can’t forget that there is inherent danger in police work. The job requires considerable courage just to handle routine work. In the death of John Williams, the problem is that officer Birk said he thought his life was in danger. Almost all other patrol officers wouldn’t have come to the same conclusion. For reasons we simply don’t understand, other officers are more secure in how they perceive danger.  Maybe part of our police reform will be trying to find and hire police officers who have that widely shared sense of what is secure and what should trigger a greater level of caution.

The Seattle City Council's public safety committee is chaired by Tim Burgess, himself a former police officer and member of the police guild. He has presented a letter, signed by members of the public safety committee, to the mayor, the guild, and the police department, outlining 11 changes or proposed reforms intended to improve officer accountability. They are available on line at the city’s web site.

All 11 reforms seem practical and useful, but do little to challenge the control the Seattle Police Officers Guild has over the management of the police force. The guild, however, responded by warning, as The Seattle Times reported, that state law requires negotiations about any changes. A guild letter said the group "has demonstrated for many years that we are always willing to entertain new ideas and recommendations for improvement to police policy and procedures. ... SPOG [the guild] is willing to discuss these recommendations at the bargaining table."

Time will tell if the guild wants to become part of the solution or part of the problem. If it continues as a closed-ranks organization or brotherhood dedicated to the elimination of civilian oversight, we will never experience the necessary reforms. It’s time to ask a simple question: Who determines police policy, the guild or the people we elect to administer our city?


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