Union negotiations loom over the future of policing in Seattle

When it comes to accountability, the stakes are high in the city’s upcoming negotiations with its largest police union.

Seattle Police officers during May Day protests in Seattle, May 1, 2019. (Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

When the Seattle City Council passed a new slate of police accountability measures in 2017, it gave the office in charge of investigating complaints against officers more latitude to do its work. Under the new law, the director was free to hire as many civilian investigators as he wanted and issue subpoenas to pry loose evidence not immediately volunteered.

But the changes never took hold, quashed a year later by a new contract with the police union representing rank-and-file officers. 

As a result, Andrew Myerberg, director of the internal affairs office, is frustrated that all but two of his investigators must be cops. "I want to be able to have discretion over how people that work at [the Office of Police Accountability] are utilized," he said. "We should be able to make that organizational decision based on skillsets, based on the type of cases. A community member may want to talk to a civilian investigator, and I see no reason why I couldn't use a civilian investigator."

As Seattle grapples with the future of policing and public safety, much of the attention has focused on the Seattle Police Department's budget. But looming in the background is the contract with the city's largest police union, the Seattle Police Officers Guild. 

In its current iteration, the contract was so concerning to a federal judge, James Robart, that he declared the city was out of compliance with its longstanding agreement to reform the Seattle Police Department. 

Well beyond just the makeup of the internal affairs office, advocates and Robart view the 2017 contract as a collection of divots taken out of what should have been the bare minimum accountability measures the Seattle City Council passed. The standard by which officers are judged for misdeeds, their avenues for appealing, the statute of limitations for reexamining past complaints: Each of those and more were altered between the time the council's new law was passed and the contract was drawn.

The contract's expiration is approaching at the end of this year. But, six months after it was slated to start, bargaining between the city and the union for a new one has yet to begin — delayed by the parties' uneasiness with negotiating over Zoom videoconferencing.

When negotiations finally do begin, just getting back to 2017's baseline is unlikely to satisfy those calling for transformational change in policing. 

“There is a backlog of reforms on issues like discipline and disciplinary appeals that should have been implemented back in 2014-2017,” said retired Judge Anne Levinson, who provided independent oversight of Seattle’s police accountability system until midway through 2016. “Now, in 2020, there are a number of other priorities that must be addressed for transformational change. So among advocates there is real concern that by letting all those other reforms languish, one can imagine the city coming back saying, 'Well you're going to have to prioritize, so you can't expect us to go back and still fix these other things, too.’ ” 

Mayor Jenny Durkan has stood by the tenets of the current contract while also promising the public and Robart improvements in the next round of negotiations. Robart has asked for a plan to fix the contract, but the city has so far not delivered. 

Looking back on the bargaining, Adrienne Thompson, policy director in the mayor's office, said the final result is, in part, a reflection of the environment in which it was negotiated. When the council passed its new accountability measures in 2017, bargaining on a new police contract had already begun, and Thompson said demanding that the union acquiesce to the new measures could have landed the negotiations in arbitration.

"We could have been in a situation that if we had not reached an agreement with [the Seattle Police Officers Guild] we would not have been able to achieve the accountability measures that are in that contract " she said.

But the something-is-better-than-nothing argument will be a harder one to make this time around, as improvements to the status quo take a backseat to demands for upending it entirely. At the same time, the union itself, facing calls to "defund the police," is digging in harder than it ever has before, setting the table for another drawn-out fight.

By the time the city announced a tentative agreement with the police union in 2018, the previous contract had already been expired for nearly four years. Union members had rejected one proposal in 2016, and the city was worried about losing more officers if it did not approve a pay raise.

It was in this context that the last agreement was ratified. Despite opposition from the Community Police Commission and intense community pressure, all but one councilmember — Kshama Sawant — voted in favor of the new contract.

In the wake of thc summer's protests, however, that vote has received newfound scrutiny. In an interview earlier this summer, council President Lorena González, who voted to ratify the deal, said she likely would not have not made the same decision today.

There's a new city council seated today, and it’s widely seen as to the left of its previous iterations. Even Councilmember Alex Pedersen — widely viewed as the council's most moderate member — is intensely critical of the results of the last round of negotiations, calling it "expensive, inflexible and unjust."

"It's the No. 1 impediment to getting more money to other programs, to improving public safety, expanding reforms, ending institutional racism," he said in an interview. "It's dysfunctional. We know it's been dysfunctional and it expires in 90 days."

For Pedersen, the City Hall infighting should be secondary to the weight of the contract. "We need to turn our focus to the contract and away from the drama and virtue signaling of City Hall and roll up our sleeves," he said.

One example of an accountability measure that was transformed between legislation and the contract is how officers can appeal discipline. The old system was panned as a choose-your-own road that officers could use to their advantage in that their peers had a say in the result of their appeal.

The council attempted to fix this by creating just one path for appeals, one heard by neutral arbiters. However, the contract reopened a second path, raising concerns that officers could once again pick and choose who would be most favorable to their case.

In another example, the city council eliminated the statute of limitations for revisiting the most serious uses of force by officers if new complaints came forward. The contract reimposed the limitation to four years.

And in yet another example, the contract raised the standard for when discipline can be meted out to whenever the alleged offense could make it harder for an officer to find work elsewhere — which could include all incidents. 

In short, said Jesse Franz of the Community Police Commission, "We haven't been able to implement the accountability systems we thought were just in 2017."

That all has implications for today. "The allegations regarding possible violations of policy — or of law — during the demonstrations all have to be handled under those contracts with provisions that shield officers from accountability," said Levinson. "The public is left going through yet another cycle where those contracts are still not remedied. A case in point is the incident with the officer who walked his bike over the head of a protester lying in the street,” an incident that occurred during a recent demonstration and received national attention after a video was posted online.  

Mike Solan, president of the Seattle Police Officers Guild, declined to go deeply into the union's strategy at the bargaining table, as did others who are likely to be involved in the process. "It's always evaluating, I guess, the current state of affairs and balancing that with our strategy when it comes to negotiating hours, wages and working conditions," he said.

But, in a signal of the divides between the city council and the union itself, he argued that "the system works." Asked which system, he said, "I would say the system of public safety in terms of accountability and the Seattle Police Department in terms of the community we serve."

Solan believes deeply that, despite the protests, most of the public agrees with him. "You're gonna have people that do missteps in police, absolutely," he said. "But you're going to have people who do missteps as pilots and doctors as well."

Another side effect of the summer's uprisings has been increased scrutiny on the role of police unions more generally. The Martin Luther King County Labor Council expelled the Seattle Police Officers Guild in dramatic fashion earlier this year.

"The police department labor contract is unique because the members of that guild carry guns and can use lethal force, and therefore we need to have greater supervision," said Pedersen.

Broadly, momentum has been building around state-level changes. The Community Police Commission's Franz said the commission would like to see accountability systems removed from the bargaining table altogether and focus only on pay.

"If you can only change a disciplinary system every four years and even those changes can't take effect without being bargained, I don't think you can have a system that community can trust," he said.

Durkan, too, said she favors implementing reforms to the bargaining process at the state level.

So far, the two sides have not set a time when they will return to the bargaining table. Meanwhile, Durkan recently laid out her proposed 2021 budget, which includes slashing about $20 million from the police department's budget and moving 911, parking enforcement and emergency management operations to other departments. On Wednesday, in response to the council’s decision to cut the police department’s 2020 budget, Durkan agreed to bargain layoffs with the various police unions and petition for “out of order layoffs” — meaning the newest officers would not necessarily be the first let go.

The council will now take its turn at shaping Durkan’s budget, with potentially huge implications for public safety and the police in the city.

Still, Pedersen contends the contract remains the most important tool for police reform. "Peeling back all the layers, it's like, how do we really solve the problems here? And it gets back to this 100-page document every time," he said. "This is the real issue and the real solution…. All roads lead to the contract."

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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.