The Seattle police union that represents rank and file officers really, really doesn't want to allow the SPD to fire Officer Cynthia Whitlatch, who faces termination over her controversial arrest of an elderly black veteran last year.
In a recent statement, SPOG claims the department's misconduct review arm, the Office of Professional Accountability (OPA), failed to abide by a 180-day deadline to complete an investigation into the Whitlatch incident. The deadline is written into the union's collective bargaining agreement with the city. Therefore, SPOG claims, "NO DISCIPLINE may result from this investigation."
Former officer David Blackmer, who the SPD fired in 2014 for "cyberstalking" women, is citing the same alleged contract violation in an attempt to win his job back.
But this is a new line of attack by SPOG on the department's attempt to hold Officer Whitlatch accountable for the arrest of Wingate—which sparked outrage across the country after it was caught on a dashcam video that was eventually brought to light by The Stranger.
SPOG president Ron Smith has previously focused his ire on the results of the investigation itself, not arcane contract violations. He's likened the OPA's investigation, which accused Whitlatch of being biased in her policing, to the "thought police." But now SPOG is accusing the OPA of violating procedural rules. Section 3.6.B of the guild's 80-page contract with the city states that no discipline can be imposed on an officer if the OPA doesn't complete its investigation within 180 days (six months). The clock starts ticking when there is "receipt of the complaint by the OPA or by a Department sworn supervisor." In the OPA's view, that happened when complaints began flooding into the unit after The Stranger reported on Wingate's arrest in January. The OPA finished its investigation in July, purportedly meeting the deadline.
The union argues the timeline started way back in September 2014, when Captain Pierre Davis and former Assistant Chief Nick Metz met with a group of community advocates. As I reported on Monday, Davis insisted that no one complained about racial bias in that meeting. The advocates say that's not true.
There are a couple ironies here:
SPOG is relying on The Stranger's reporting—which it's safe to say its members aren't generally fond of—for its claims about deadline violations.
In addition, the union is essentially taking the word of the community advocates over the word of Captain Davis (who is represented by the police management union, not SPOG) that those advocates truly did complain about racial bias back in September.
And beyond those ironies is the union's argument for how a clock can tick for months without making a sound:
SPOG is claiming that the six-month clock for finishing the investigation really started ticking in September when the community members' complaints were lodged with Captain Davis, even though Captain Davis didn't refer those complaints to the OPA (which means OPA didn't know about the meeting between Captain Davis and community advocates, or even about the Wingate arrest itself, until it was reported in The Stranger in January of this year). Even then, the union argues that as soon as Murphy learned in January about the concerns connected to the Wingate arrest, he should have asked the union for an extension of the six-month deadline, since it turned out some concerns about the Wingate arrest were first raised in September with Captain Davis. The union's contract states that SPOG cannot "unreasonably deny" such extension requests.
The union statement on all this accuses Murphy of "repeatedly demonstrating" that he is "unwilling" to abide by SPOG's contract.
Smith—who believes the Obama administration is waging war on police departments across the country—declined to comment. So did OPA director Pierce Murphy. In a memorandum last year, he said the office takes "great care" to meet the deadlines.
"It's part of our contract," said Rich O'Neil, Smith's predecessor, when questioned in 2007 about how the deadline allows some officers to escape accountability. "It was negotiated by the city; they agreed to it and when they violate it, we hold them to task."
Human Rights Watch has recommended getting rid of such deadlines for misconduct investigations, which are in place at various departments around the country. In a 1998 report on police accountability called "Shielded from Justice," the group said time limits should either be removed or extended to reflect however long an investigation requires, and further, "an arbitrary deadline should never be an excuse for allowing an officer who has committed a human rights violation to escape punishment."
The city is currently re-negotiating its contract with SPOG, and the department's ability to hold officers accountable will depend in significant part on the results. Some believe that Mayor Murray, who was heavily backed by SPOG during his campaign, won't push through critical reforms during the negotiations, including abolishing a disciplinary panel stacked two-to-one with police.
This post has been updated.