The City of Seattle is about to embark on a search for a new police chief, and if the city council has its way, there will be one less roadblock to fielding the best candidates in the country. Currently, a Seattle ordinance from the 1970s limits who a chief can hire for his or her senior staff—the assistant chiefs who are the highest-ranking members of the department. Seattle law says they must be promoted from within the Seattle Police Department.
And this, according to Seattle City Council member Tim Burgess, has posed a problem in the past. When Seattle sought a police chief in 2009 and 2010, says Burgess, "people were surprised at the lack of depth and strength in the candidate pool." Burgess says he's heard the same thing from members of the city's search committee, firms that execute searches like that one, and others in what he calls "national policing circles": This hiring restriction blocks some top candidates from considering a move to Seattle.
It doesn't seem so crazy; what chief hired away from another city wouldn't want to bring along assistants they knew and trusted to Seattle, especially when they'd be reforming a department under a consent decree due to a history of excessive force and biased policing?
A report in mid-November from the federal oversight monitor called out senior staff specifically as part of the entrenched resistance to reform and a hurdle to the department's compliance with its settlement agreement; two assistant chiefs were subsequently demoted.
So Burgess and Council Member Bruce Harrell have cosponsored legislation to lift the restriction and allow a new chief to consider whomever they want for those positions—including outsiders from other cities.
But now the city's police unions are crying foul.
"We believe this is a mandatory subject of bargaining," says Seattle Police Management Association president Eric Sano. "We don't want to be obstructionists, but we do want to negotiate this because it's a promotion opportunity for one of our members... If you change that law, you are changing our working conditions." Both the SPMA and the other police union, the Seattle Police Officers' Guild, have given the city official notice that they believe this would be a violation of their contracts and thus subject to a legal challenge.
Harrell, for his part, is considering ways to allow these outside hires but throw a bone to the unhappy unions. Among them: allowing a chief just one outside hire, or half the senior staff instead of all of it. He'll present a proposal in mid-January.
The next question is: Are the unions going to protect their employees at the potential cost of stymieing reform at the highest levels of SPD?