The group's court filing could prompt a federal judge to find the city out of compliance and order it to renegotiate parts of the agreement with the Seattle Police Officers Guild.
Seattle is backsliding on federally-mandated police reforms after enacting a labor contract with the city’s rank-and-file union that doesn’t improve transparency in the internal disciplinary process, undermining public trust, a citizen-advisory panel said Wednesday.
In a lengthy court filing, the group urged a federal judge to direct the city to fix flaws in the agreement with the Seattle Police Officers Guild. The city’s police department is among about a dozen across the country that are under increased federal scrutiny after the Department of Justice found Seattle officers had engaged in a pattern of excessive force and displayed “troubling” evidence of discriminatory policing.
The city “bargained away critical reforms … crafted carefully and deliberately, drawing on hard lessons over many years with the existing system,” the Community Police Commission (CPC) said in a stinging brief submitted to U.S. District Judge James Robart. The judge is overseeing a 2012 consent decree in which the city agreed to carry out reforms arising from the Justice Department’s investigation.
The commission stopped short of asking Robart to find the city out of compliance with the consent decree, opting to leave that highly charged decision to the judge.
But it called on Robart to “safeguard the many important accomplishments of police reform” and “convey that the Consent Decree will not be resolved until the City establishes that the accountability system reforms have in fact been secured.”
Created as part of the reforms, the CPC is not a party to the consent decree. But Robart invited the CPC to offer its views on whether the city should be found out of compliance in light of collective-bargaining rules that led to an arbitrator’s ruling late last year ordering the reinstatement of an officer who had been fired after punching a handcuffed woman. He also asked whether the union contract, approved in November, conflicts with the agreement.
In its filing, the CPC said the arbitrator’s ruling represented a departure from the aims of landmark police-accountability legislation enacted by the city in 2017, as well as other reforms. That will make it harder to uphold misconduct findings and appropriate discipline, in addition to undermining the authority of the police department’s internal investigation process and the police chief, who makes the final decision on discipline, it said.
“This result threatens the Consent Decree’s purpose of ensuring constitutional and effective policing in which the community of Seattle can have confidence,” the CPC’s brief argued, rebutting the previously filed assertions of attorneys for the city and Justice Department who maintain that the arbitrator’s single action doesn’t justify finding the city out of compliance.
The contract, approved by the city in November, continues to allow appeals by officers challenging disciplinary actions to be held out of view of the public, the media and those who filed the initial complaints, the CPC said in the filing. The CPC, which now has 13 filled positions out of 21, had urged the City Council to reject the contract despite the commission’s belief that officers deserved big pay hikes.
The continuing dispute comes a year after Robart found the city in full compliance with the consent decree, triggering a two-year review period in which the police department must show the reforms are locked in place before the agreement can be dissolved.
“We supported the Court’s initial finding, do not lightly suggest suspending it, and sincerely hope the City can rectify the damage done to accountability reform in time to avert a reversal of that achievement,” the CPC wrote.
“Despite our regret that we have come to this point, the CPC asks the Court to make explicit that the City must demonstrate that the damage done to accountability reform … has been fully rectified before it can discharge its obligations in this case and bring the Court’s supervision to a successful conclusion,” its brief said.
Fé Lopez, the CPC’s executive director, said at a news briefing Wednesday that the commission acknowledges the police department’s accomplishments and the collective-bargaining rights of officers. “However this is significant enough in this moment in time that we need to insure that those long fought for reforms” are not undercut, Lopez said.
Anne Levinson, a retired judge and former Seattle police oversight official who has fought for years for reforms, provided a 58-page declaration on behalf of the CPC, citing to Robart the continued use of outside arbitrators who lack expertise in police procedures.
“Disciplinary appeals are frequent, and outcomes are often hidden from public view and occur long after the underlying incident,” Levinson wrote. The officer’s reinstatement “is likely but one example of how appropriate discipline often cannot be imposed or sustained when excessive force or other serious misconduct occurs,” she wrote.
The arbitrator found that the officer, Adley Shepherd, used excessive force but reduced the penalty to a 15-day suspension after concluding that termination was too harsh. The city has refused to reinstate the officer and asked a King County judge to overturn the decision.
Levinson wrote that police-union contracts around the country, unlike collective-bargaining agreements for other types of unions, historically have been “vehicles for rolling back or impeding accountability, transparency, and civilian oversight, damaging community trust in the police.”
City officials, who have touted the creation of an independent inspector general with broad oversight powers and the implementation of police body-cameras under the contract, contend that changes in arbitration procedures will provide a safeguard against gaming the process.
Critics fault the city for abandoning language in the 2017 legislation that replaced arbitrators with a city hearing examiner and review board.
“Regardless of how many discipline or termination cases have been overturned on appeal in Seattle, history teaches us that all it takes is one or two well publicized reversals to once again undermine community trust and confidence,” Levinson wrote.
Waiting until the next negotiation to fix problems is not an option, the CPC said in its brief.
“Community members can be forgiven for sinking into cynicism should the situation remain unchanged,” it said.