Did Durkan sacrifice police reform to satisfy a police union?
Did Durkan sacrifice police reform to satisfy a police union? Ansel Herz

The city’s public watchdog for police accountability issued a strong and detailed rebuke Wednesday of Mayor Jenny Durkan’s new contract with the city’s largest police union. The Community Police Commission (CPC) voted unanimously to call on the City Council to reject the contract, which they described as a dramatic step back for police accountability.

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Jay Hollingsworth, a CPC commissioner, said Durkan’s contract gave too much power back to the police unions.

“The union doesn’t want to give up power. They like being able to police themselves. They think they’re highly capable of that but what we’ve seen in the public as people have lost their lives to police activities is that they cannot be trusted,” Hollingsworth said.

The new contract with the Seattle Police Officer Guild (SPOG), which represents the city’s non-management police officers, comes a year after the City Council passed a landmark rewrite of how the city holds its police force accountable. Durkan agreed in the union's contract to have the union’s collective bargaining agreement (CBA) supersede and change any aspects of that accountability ordinance whenever there is a conflict. The CPC published a long list of those changes at their Wednesday meeting.

Lisa Daugaard, a commissioner on the CPC and the Executive Director of the Public Defender Association, said the problem wasn’t just that the union contract changes some aspects of the city’s police accountability laws, it’s that it substantially changes how police are held accountable in the city.

“The issue here is how pervasive the changes are and whether there is really much of anything left in the police accountability ordinance and whether we can fairly say that the ordinance exists as a coherent approach to police accountability after the CBA [Collective Bargaining Agreement],” Daugaard said.

Enrique Gonzalez, a co-chair of the CPC, blamed the mayor and her office for not effectively fighting for the city’s existing police reform laws.

“I cannot blame a labor union for advocating on behalf of their own membership, that’s their job. But it’s also the mayor’s job to advocate on behalf of the ordinances that the City Council has passed,” Gonzalez said.

The CPC is one of the city’s three agencies overseeing police accountability. Their role is to provide community input on police policies. At their Wednesday meeting, they published a lengthy breakdown of how Durkan’s police union CBA weakens the police accountability reforms passed last year, including:

• A modification to the burden of proof that makes it harder to hold police officers accountable for lying;
• Changes to a timeline on deciding officer punishment that makes it easier for cops to get out of being held accountable;
• Limits to how the director of the OPA can staff civilians in the agency and to how those civilians can work on misconduct cases that might involve a police officer's termination;
• A change to the statute of limitations for holding cops accountable that is more favorable to cops;
• And a procedural change that allows cops multiple ways to appeal discipline decisions, instead of the singular commission that was supposed to handle appeals under the police reform legislation.

That’s a fairly small sample of the issues the CPC has brought up with the contract Durkan negotiated. Their entire critique stretches across 35 pages. Daugaard said one of the most important problems is that the contract requires a higher burden of proof for holding police officers accountable. City law says that there must be a “preponderance” of evidence, meaning more likely than not, to decide a misconduct allegation against an officer. The new union contract raises that “preponderance” standard to an “elevated standard of review" in cases where a termination might make it harder for a cop to get a new job elsewhere.

“This is making it more difficult for the department to sustain findings of discipline across the board, through all acts of misconduct,” Daugaard said. “It’s not just that it’s a higher standard, it’s that it’s vague. How can you prove an elevated standard? That’s not a standard in law. That’s almost a reversal card in your pocket on any appeal of any disciplinary decision.”

One of the big priorities in the city’s police reform legislation was to make it easier to hold police officers accountable outside of a strict 180-day time limit. That 180-day deadline has been used by police officers to fight clear instances of misconduct by saying the city violated its own deadline. Durkan said at a press conference on Monday that her contract allowed the department to discipline an officer in certain instances beyond that 180-day window, but Isaac Ruiz, a co-chair of the CPC, said the contract created exceptions that are “less clear and less certain to the point that in my judgement OPA can’t really rely on those.”

“The CBA rolls all of this back, we are back in the world where if the investigation is not completed in the 180-day time frame discipline cannot be imposed,” Ruiz said. “So, we are left in a situation that looks a lot more like pre-legislation than it does post.”

The union contract still needs to be approved by both the City Council and the federal judge that has been monitoring Seattle’s police reform process since 2013. Durkan indicated in a press conference Monday that the council cannot change the terms of the negotiated contract.