Union contract is a 'barrier' to ending oversight of SPD, says commission

The Community Police Commission is at odds with the Department of Justice and the City of Seattle.

A squad car drives by the waterfront on Aug. 8, 2018, in Seattle. (Photo by Jovelle Tamayo for Crosscut)

A civilian group is urging a federal judge to continue scrutinizing the Seattle Police Department unless collective bargaining agreements with both the rank-and-file and leadership unions can be revised to include stronger accountability for disciplined officers.

The recommendation of the Community Police Commission (CPC), filed in a lengthy brief Wednesday, is significant — the expensive and demanding oversight has stretched on since 2012 and is scheduled to end by early 2020. City officials, and Mayor Jenny Durkan in particular, are counting on just that.

But the commissioners say their dramatic request for continued scrutiny is necessary because the department is unlikely to receive such close oversight again in the future. 

“At this moment in time we have the most momentum, the most oversight, the most eyes on this that we will ever have,” Fé Lopez, executive director of the CPC, said Wednesday. “If we couldn’t get it done now — the city couldn’t get it done now — then when can community expect those changes will actually happen?”

Under the eye of a judge, Seattle has been working through reforms of its police department since 2012, when a Department of Justice investigation found patterns of excessive force and bias. A federal court and an appointed monitor have been overseeing the process.

In January 2018, U.S. District Judge James Robart declared the department to have met its obligations, triggering a two-year wind-down period until the SPD would no longer be under court oversight. 

But a new contract between the Seattle Police Officers Guild [SPOG] and the city inflamed tensions. The CPC argues it waters down accountability measures for officers that were passed through legislation in summer 2017. 

Then, shortly after the Seattle City Council approved the contract, the police union won the reinstatement of Officer Adley Shepherd, who had been fired for punching a woman in 2016. The CPC pointed to his reinstatement as an example of something the new contract would continue to allow.

In response, Robart posed the stunning possibility that the city could revert back a step in the reform process. He posed the question to involved parties: Should the contract and Shepherd’s reinstatement prevent the city from moving past the judge's monitoring?

The city said no, calling Shepherd’s reinstatement an outlier that should not be grounds to find the city out of compliance. City lawyers are currently fighting to keep Shepherd from rejoining the department. 

The Department of Justice also said the incident should not keep Seattle from finishing out the agreement. Under President Trump’s various attorneys general, the DOJ has all but abandoned such agreements, known as consent decrees, as a tool for forcing change on local law enforcement — a sharp break from the DOJ under President Barack Obama. “An individual incident does not serve as the basis for finding a failure of sustained compliance,” read the DOJ’s brief, filed last week.

The CPC, however, believes that the new contract would make it easier for officers like Shepherd to win back their jobs. The main point the CPC argues in its brief is that it allows an officer to go through a secretive arbitration process to appeal discipline, rather than through the open process approved as part of the 2017 accountability legislation. The commission also contends the standard for discipline is raised to a poorly defined standard.

"Simply put, the Shepherd case is not an anomaly, but rather a feature of a system designed to limit accountability," the CPC wrote in its brief. "It is no surprise that SPOG wanted to hold onto that attribute; but from the perspective of the community, doing so reinstated a longstanding barrier to accountability."

Additionally, the commission argues the contract conflicts with the city's separate agreement with the department's captains and lieutenants, creating two differing levels of accountability. 

What reopening the contract would look like is unclear, however. "We don’t have every single solution to remedy this situation we are currently in," said Lopez, the CPC executive director. 

Both the rank-and-file and leadership would likely not take well to demands to start negotiations anew and could bring the fight to an even higher court. 

Durkan and Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best have vigorously defended the new contract. “Let me just be clear, we are absolutely committed to reforms,” Best said in a press conference after the contract was approved in November. “We are going to make sure that we have a culture of continuous improvement and innovations. We will be relentless in making sure we have a reformed police department."

Now that he's received the recommendations of Seattle, the DOJ and the CPC — which is not a party to the process but a "friend of the court" — it will now be up to Judge Robart to determine whether the new contract should be a barrier to completing the consent decree. He has yet to call a conference to discuss his thinking, but will likely do so shortly.

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About the Authors & Contributors

David Kroman

David Kroman

David Kroman is formerly a reporter at Crosscut, where he covered city politics.