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.?”
Sano said the union takes specific issue with language in the proposed bill that says officers appointed from outside the department “shall serve at the sole discretion of the Chief of Police with no rights to other employment in the City.”
Existing city law states that the department must offer assistant and deputy chiefs a chance to return to their former jobs as lieutenants and captains if they are relieved from the command staff. In recent weeks, two assistant chiefs exercised that option when they were demoted. The legislation would not change that part of the ordinance for officers promoted internally.
The language in question is intended to make it clear that the department does not have to extend lieutenant or captain job offers to outside hires who are eventually removed from their deputy or assistant chief posts. The union is concerned that bill makes it sound like outside hires can’t take jobs with any city department if they’re asked to leave the force.
During Wednesday's committee meeting, Harrell asked a council staff member to look into clarifying the language.
“It’s kind of poorly written,” Sano said of the bill. He added later that “it flies in the face of succession planning.”
“It’s certainly not ready to go,” said Joseph Kessler, a captain in the southwest precinct and vice president of the union.
Both officers emphasized that the union was not trying to be obstructionist.
“Everything is open to negotiation,” Kessler said. “We’re willing to sit down at the table.”
During the Wednesday meeting, Harrell said he’d already heard ideas from critics of the bill about how it could be tweaked. The potential changes included a sunset clause that would allow the hiring restrictions to go back into place after the next chief is selected and limits on how many outsiders a new chief could bring in as deputy and assistant chiefs.
“I am concerned about the message we do send to the rank and file and the command staff now,” Harrell said. “Quite frankly I like having conversations with them so they understand why we’re making these changes.”
Burgess said rank-and-file cops and detectives want to see stronger leadership from the council and the mayor’s office. “They’ll like this,” he said referring to the legislation.
“You say that, but their spokesman doesn’t like it,” Harrell replied. “Their spokesperson filed a grievance opposing it and said the exact opposite, so I have difference in opinion on what the rank and file want.”
The president of the Seattle Police Officer's Guild, the union that represents officers below the rank of lieutenant, could not be reached for comment on Tuesday or Wednesday.
In the hallway outside the council chambers, Sano said that while an outside perspective might be helpful for the department, it doesn't necessarily outweigh the credentials of officers already on the force. "We know Seattle politics, we know Seattle history," he said. "If you bring somebody from a completely different city, they may not understand, for lack of a better term, the Seattle way of doing things."
Burgess, a former Seattle Police Department detective, said after the meeting that officers stop him in the street and in coffee shops to share their concerns about the department.
“We’ve had four years now of very ineffective leadership from the mayor on these issues,” he said. “But we’ve also had a police department that, in my view, has not been well lead over the last several years and that has resulted in discontent among the rank and file and a real desire for change.”
Harrell said he would plan to hold a committee vote on the bill on Jan. 15 and aim to get the legislation before the full council in late January. He said that he’d talked to Mayor-elect Murray’s transition staff about the police chief search and “the actual solicitation of resumes for chiefs will most likely not be made before then.” That should leave the council, the police management association and, potentially, the incoming mayor some time to work out their differences.