Police accountability is having a heyday at the Seattle City Council this week. The majority of city council members seem to be lining up behind police reforms lately--no thanks to police committee chair Jim Compton.

This progressive shift was made clear on Monday, September 22, when six members--reportedly minus Compton, Margaret Pageler, and Jan Drago--were prepared to vote to suspend procedural rules and give activists time to rant about the city and cop guild's labor negotiations during the full council meeting that afternoon. Bolstered by the council support, president Peter Steinbrueck set aside time for the three dozen citizen activists during the usually sedate morning briefings. "It was clear that there were enough votes to sustain a suspension of the rules," reports Diane Narasaki, chair of the racial profiling task force at the Minority Executive Directors Coalition, which helped organize the activist bloc with several other organizations.

Narasaki's group gave the council an earful about the city's current negotiations with the Seattle Police Officers' Guild. The activists want to know whether police accountability is one of the issues being negotiated (that's something the local chapter of the ACLU wants to know, too, and it has filed a public disclosure lawsuit to find out)--and if it isn't already, they'd like it to be. Furthermore, they'd like the council to hold a public hearing so regular folks can weigh in on what they'd like to see the city pushing for. The city and the guild have been negotiating a new cop contract behind closed doors since last November, and the public doesn't see the contract until it comes before the council for its stamp of approval. At that point, it's too late to make significant changes, activists point out.

"Community groups have been waiting a long time for this opportunity," said Narasaki, who sat near a quiet Compton and delivered the demands. "The organizations have all been discussing our alarm at the prospect of not having any significant avenue for comments on the city's position on police accountability. We believe the citizens of Seattle should be treated with the same respect at the guild itself."

Guild vice-president Kevin Haistings sent out a letter to the council before the meeting, expressing concern over the idea of a public hearing. "Allowing public input and changing the current discussions, goals and objectives or adding new demands at this time would appear to be bad faith bargaining," Haistings wrote. The cops have the advantage, since they can trigger arbitration over their negotiations at any time, effectively closing the door on citizen input.

Later that day, Drago--chair of the city's Labor Relations Policy Committee--told activists that she would convene an executive session of the labor committee in the next few weeks to discuss their demands. Narasaki worries that a few weeks might be too late, given the cops' upper hand in ending negotiations and heading to arbitration.

Even if the progressive council majority runs into a wall on the activists' contract-negotiating demands, it's already organizing around another, more specific accountability issue. Council members seem to be lining up votes to boos a few of Compton's (and the city attorney's) upcoming moderate reform ideas, and potentially nixing the controversial impound ordinance altogether. The impound law allows cops to call a tow truck when they catch people driving with their licenses suspended for things like unpaid tickets--a situation known as DWLS-3 (driving while license suspended, level 3). It's a lightning-rod issue for activists because of its disproportionate effect on lower-income drivers who can't afford to pay their tickets, have their licenses suspended and then their cars towed, and then struggle to pay the fines to reclaim their cars.

The council tried to repeal the impound ordinance in 2000, but came up one vote shy. Now, it's about to take up the issue again, and it's bolstered by a recent RAND Corporation report on the law. The study, presented to Compton's committee on September 17, questions the impact of the impound law. According to the report, the impound law isn't deterring folks with suspended licenses from driving, as the city had hoped when it enacted the law. "There appears to be no influence of the law on DWLS court filings in Seattle," the report says.

So the progressive council members are targeting the impound ordinance--reportedly, even formerly impound-friendly Heidi Wills is revisiting the issue. City Attorney Tom Carr recently referred legislation to Compton that would tweak the impound law to allow impounds for DUIs and eliminate impounds for situations in which nonsuspended owners loan out their cars to suspended drivers. Hopefully, the progressive plan will get majority support, leapfrog Compton and Carr's weak proposal, and dump the impound law outright.


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