On Friday, the Seattle police union posted the tentative collective bargaining agreement it struck with the City earlier last week. The agreement, which runs through the end of last year, includes a 23% pay increase for officers and very few changes to accountability measures. Local police accountability advocates have long expected the police union’s new contract to result in a huge payout for cops, but the biggest surprise surrounds how little the City has gotten in return for something that will likely add tens of millions of dollars to its projected $230 million deficit in 2025.

The contract addresses basically none of the priorities the City outlined in March 2023, including a provision to end the 180-day time limit for Office of Police Accountability investigations, which has allowed cops to skate by without punishment on serious offenses. The City also talked about the need to secure subpoena power for police misconduct investigators, reduce the high level of proof needed to discipline a cop on serious offenses, and create a more transparent appeal and arbitration process. None of that appears in the contract. 

Instead, the City scored two milquetoast reforms. The first reform directs arbitrators to defer to the chief of police on officer discipline so long as the punishment aligns with “just cause,” but that term has no clear definition in the contract. The second reform allows the OPA to add two civilian investigators, bringing the total number up to four.

Though police accountability advocates want to see changes to the way the City handles arbitration and civilian oversight of police misconduct, neither of the new measures substantively changes either process, said Shannon Cheng, chair of People Power Washington, a local police watchdog organization. The City basically picked out the buzzwords people throw around about those issues just to be able to say, “‘We did something about arbitrations, we did something about civilianization,’” she said. “But the change is so minimal that it's almost like they did nothing,” Cheng argued.

The agreement’s lackluster accountability measures do not appear to align with the significant changes the City needed to make to escape the grip of federal oversight that has cost taxpayers more than $200 million dollars over the past decade. 

The Seattle Police Officer’s Guild (SPOG) ratified its previous contract in 2018 after four years of negotiations, which resulted in a 17% raise, $65 million in backpay, and other pay enhancements, including extra money for cops who wear body cameras while on duty. But, despite the City giving cops all those benefits, the contract backslid on police accountability since it did not include the landmark police reforms the City passed in its 2017 Accountability Ordinance, which promised more civilian oversight of the department. 

The federal government took issue with the way that contract forced Seattle to forego major parts of the accountability ordinance. More than a decade ago, the City entered into a consent decree with the US Department of Justice, which gave US Federal Judge James Robart oversight of SPD policy changes. After the City passed the accountability ordinance, Robart ruled the City in compliance with the decree pending the results of police union contract negotiations. When the contract failed to include the City’s 2017 accountability measures, Robart ruled the City out of compliance with the decree and kept the fed’s eye on the department. In response, the city council essentially called for a do-over, saying they’d fix issues with the accountability policies in the contract during the 2020 negotiations.

Last year, the City tried to convince Robart once again to lift the consent decree before a finalized SPOG contract, and Robart said he would wait until after the City finalized the newest SPOG contract, as he was old enough to remember what happened in 2018. 

A federal report in December of 2023 laid out what the City needed to do to come into compliance with federal expectations regarding police accountability. The big ones, which Robart mentioned back in 2019 and the City outlined in March of 2023, surround the City’s need to give civilians more power over police misconduct investigations, remove the strict 180-day timeline on Office of Police Accountability investigations, and to no longer use private arbitration attorneys to review and overturn disciplinary decisions by the chief of police. 

Cheng said she wondered for a long time how much the City would have to pay to force SPOG to allow the City to implement the accountability ordinance and say goodbye to the police department’s federal babysitters. This Friday, when Cheng read the tentative agreement, the biggest surprise came from the lack of any even nod to what Robart wanted to see.

“The big paycheck is there, but the other side seems to be missing,” Cheng said.

Community Police Commission Co-Chair Joel Merkel said the City has not shown them any official information about the next SPOG contract, but the commission knew about the documents temporarily posted on the SPOG website. 

Merkel entertained the idea that the City may have made some progress on accountability stuff in mediation with SPOG over the next contract, which, according to PubliCola, is underway, but if the City has only made as much progress as shown in the contract published Friday, then, he acknowledged, the City gave up a lot of leverage by agreeing to huge pay increases without requiring all the accountability measures the CPC requested

Defend the Defund Organizer BJ Last said he doubts that the City plans to drop any significant accountability improvements in some secondary contract update. SPOG won the pay raises it wanted, and now it has no incentive to return to the bargaining table on accountability issues until the next time they feel like they need a raise.

A spokesperson for Mayor Bruce Harrell said his office would be able to speak about the contract in more detail should SPOG members choose to ratify the tentative agreement. He said the agreement reflects a commitment to creating a safe Seattle.