Does the new SPMA contract do enough to embrace accountability changes?
Does the new SPMA contract do enough to embrace accountability changes? SPD

Police reform advocates are raising concerns over a proposed contract for the union representing Seattle Police Department lieutenants and captains, saying certain provisions in the new agreement undermine police reforms passed by the City Council in May.

The City Council tabled a vote scheduled today on whether to approve the proposed contract for the Seattle Police Management Association, which represents more than 70 higher-ranking officers. Approving a contract for SPMA would mark a big milestone for the union, which has operated on an expired agreement since the end of 2011.

City leaders are heralding the proposed contract as a victory that brought cops on board with changes to the accountability system outlined in the May reforms package.

Among those changes: Civilianizing the police oversight body known as the Office of Professional Accountability (OPA), creating a new Office of the Inspector General and making the advisory Community Police Commission permanent. Also, accepting a body cams program.

“This is great news for this city and for the union,” said interim mayor Tim Burgess in a statement last week.

But some advocates and reformists are questioning sections in the contract that they say actually contradict with reforms passed in the city's landmark police accountability legislation this May.

On top of that, city officials view the SPMA contract as a tone-setter for ongoing negotiations with the Seattle Police Officers Guild (SPOG), which represents sergeants and patrol officers. “This sends quite a big signal to SPOG,” Warner, Seattle’s chief negotiator with SPMA, told The Seattle Times.

Not everyone is happy with the outcome of the negotiations.

Former OPA watchdog and Ret. Municipal Judge Anne Levinson said she is pleased that the SPMA is showing willingness to support the police reforms legislation, but adds that the new contract doesn’t do enough to embrace some of the ordinance’s key sections.

Perhaps most significantly, the SPMA contract conflicts with a suite of reforms related to the disciplinary appeals process. The police accountability legislation requires a city-appointed body called the Public Safety Civil Service Commission (PSCSC) to review all disciplinary appeals. In contrast, the SPMA contract allows commanding officers to choose from the commission or an arbitrator to review appeals, which is the current practice for all unionized city employees.

Some police reform advocates say arbitration is more likely to result in favorable outcomes for officers appealing discipline. “For an arbitrator, legal, moral, and objective concerns can take a back seat to compromise and remaining acceptable to both parties in order to maintain their work with the City. Arbitrators may often settle on a false compromise that doesn’t serve justice,” wrote Howard Gale, a longtime city gadfly, in a press release last Friday.

“It would be valuable for the council and city attorney to pause and do a side-by-side review with the accountability ordinance to ensure that all the significant reforms that were made on behalf of the public and complainants are retained as intended and that the ordinance is not weakened or undercut,” Levinson told The Stranger.

Warner, legal counsel for the Mayor of Seattle and the chief negotiator in talks with SPMA, points to changes to the arbitration process he said will prevent either side from influencing an arbitrator. For instance, the new contract mandates arbitrators be selected from a randomized list created by a federal agency. Also, each side under the new agreement only gets one chance to disqualify names, as opposed to the multiple strikes allowed for under the current expired contract.

“Designed with the approval of all councilmembers on the [Labor Relations Policy Committee], the SPMA [agreement] improves current arbitration practices by creating a system that will be open to the public and allows SPMA’s voluntary acceptance of the accountability legislation and body cameras,” Warner said in a statement.

The reversal on one-track disciplinary appeals system outlined in the reforms ordinance marks a blow to a change that was years in the making. The CPC and Levinson suggested the system in 2014 after revelations that former police chief Harry Bailey downgraded misconduct findings for seven officers, including one who threatened former Stranger news editor Dominic Holden for recording him.