Seattle Council approves police union contract with 23% pay bump

The retroactive deal covers back pay for 2021-2023, but does little to increase accountability measures. The city is negotiating for a 2024 contract.

the backs of four police officers in uniform

New police recruits train at Washington’s Criminal Justice Training Center in Burien, April 2, 2024. Washington ranks last in the nation in police recruiting. (Genna Martin/Cascade PBS)

The Seattle City Council voted 8 to 1 on Tuesday to approve a new contract with the Seattle Police Officers Guild (SPOG). Councilmember Tammy Morales was the lone no vote. 

The new bargaining agreement provides a 23% pay bump for Seattle officers, making entry-level salaries $103,000, the highest in the state. But, to the dismay of police reformers, the new contract provides little in the way of new accountability measures.

The previous SPOG contract expired in 2020, and the city and police union have been locked in protracted negotiations since. The contract ratified Tuesday is entirely retroactive, covering 2021-2023 to provide about $57 million in back pay for SPD's approximately 915 sworn officers. The city is in ongoing negotiations with SPOG for the next contract, to be effective beginning in 2024.

City officials — many of whom ran on promises to re-staff the Seattle Police Department — wanted to provide the pay bump to help stanch the wave of officer departures and incentivize new recruits.

“Today's an important day because it shows our commitment not just to the men and women of the Seattle Police Department, but also our commitment to improving our public safety posture,” said Councilmember Bob Kettle at Tuesday’s meeting. 

Kettle argued the department was losing officers to neighboring jurisdictions in part because Seattle salaries were 15th lowest in the state. He continued, “Yes, it is expensive. Yes, it is a challenge for our budget. But if we don't compete in this labor market, we won't accomplish our goal of achieving a safe base in our city.”

According to Council central staff director Ben Noble, current base salaries and benefits for SPD officers cost the city $170 million a year. Retroactive payments for 2021-2023 will cost an additional $57 million. Moving forward, the new salaries will cost an additional $39 million. 

This comes at a time when the city is facing a projected $241 million budget deficit. But, said Noble, the city has been adding money to its reserves in anticipation of the new SPOG contract and is only about $9.2 million short of the anticipated additional costs from now until 2026. The Mayor’s office said the contract will only add about $1 million to next year’s project deficit.

The SPOG contract has been a barrier to Seattle’s police reform efforts in recent years. In 2017, the City Council unanimously passed a suite of reforms meant to provide better civilian oversight of SPD and make it easier to discipline or fire officers for misconduct. The reforms included making permanent the civilian Community Police Commission and expanding its powers, as well as creating the Office of the Inspector General of Public Safety.

The 2018 SPOG contract allowed some new measures to go forward, such as the expansion of the Community Police Commission and a mandate that officers wear body cameras. But it also maintained multiple avenues for officers to appeal disciplinary rulings, and stipulated that language in the contract superseded any 2017 reforms. The Council ratified that contract despite a chorus of community opposition.

The adoption of the 2018 contract contributed to a federal judge’s ruling that Seattle had fallen partially out of compliance with its Department of Justice oversight agreement, which began in 2012 after accusations about the police department’s overuse of force.

The 2021-2023 contract ratified Tuesday has a few accountability measures. For example, it adds two more civilian investigators at the Office of Police Accountability, for a total of seven.

But police accountability advocates want much more and are now looking to the 2024 contract that’s still in negotiation to once again bolster SPD’s ability to discipline and fire officers. Some reformers fear, however, that city leaders gave away their leverage to do so by already providing a pay bump in the retroactive 2021-2023 contract.

Before her no vote Tuesday, Morales voiced concerns about the lack of new accountability measures in the contract.

“I believe this contract as bargained does not protect the city and the lack of accountability measures puts us in continued violation of the federal consent decree,” Morales said. “And the contract isn't in compliance with the [2017] legislation that this City Council passed to ensure police accountability.” 

Of the 18 members of the public who testified about the SPOG contract on Tuesday, all but one urged the Council to reject it. No SPOG members testified at the meeting.

The Community Police Commission has recommended four key accountability provisions for the city to bargain for in the next SPOG contract.

First, they want the city to remove any clauses that allow the contract bargaining agreement to supersede local law.

Second, they want the contract to close any accountability loopholes, including the 180-day limit on misconduct investigations and the heightened burden of proof. Within that, they also want the contract to give the police chief authority to place officers on leave without pay, streamline disciplinary standards, and publicly disclose any investigation findings or officer discipline.

Third, they want the Office of Police Accountability to become a fully civilian entity for the sake of independence. Currently, the office’s investigations are conducted by a mix of sworn officers and civilians.

And finally, the Community Police Commission recommends the city bargain for the ability to give the offices of Police Accountability and Inspector General full subpoena power to compel witnesses to produce evidence that they don’t provide voluntarily.

In addition to recommendations for the contract, the Community Police Commission wants to see the city lobby for state legislative action to outlaw police officer contracts from bargaining over accountability measures.

On the campaign trail last year, District 5 Councilmember Cathy Moore said it was important to her that the next SPOG contract reinstate the 2017 reforms.

During an October debate, District 4 Councilmember Maritza Rivera said, “I would not want to see a contract that negotiates out accountability. We need to hold officers that are committing wrongdoing accountable … so we definitely do not want to have a contract that does not have accountability.”

At Tuesday’s Council meeting, Rivera emphasized the ongoing negotiations and possibility for more accountability measures. 

“As part of that ongoing negotiation, it is important to address accountability and wages, both of which are critical to a functioning police department and a safe city,” she said. “The city needs to continue working towards the accountability requirements of the consent decree.”

In a statement released in April after SPOG members voted to ratify the 2021-2023 contract, Mayor Bruce Harrell acknowledged the ongoing accountability efforts. He said negotiations over the 2024 contract will “allow the city to move forward with these important improvements to its accountability structure while continuing to pursue other significant items proposed by the city based on input from community partners and the federal judge overseeing the city’s Consent Decree with the Department of Justice.”

This story has been updated with quotes and context from the Council meeting. 

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