Seattle’s new police union contract had a rough day in federal court Monday when a judge tasked with overseeing reforms at the department said that it’s possible the new police union contract contradicts the spirit of the police reform agreement the city is currently forced to comply with.
“When the city takes the position that there’s nothing in there that is inconsistent with the consent decree, I don’t believe that to be accurate,” U.S. Judge James Robart said yesterday.
Mayor Jenny Durkan has forcefully defended the contract she negotiated with SPOG. On Monday afternoon she told the court, “We believe that every one of the parts of the tentative agreement not only meets the consent decree but also moves forward significant reforms under the accountability ordinance.”
The city’s own Community Policing Commission (CPC), which was created to offer a citizen voice on policing issues, has called the new police union contract a dramatic step backward for police reform in the city.
Everyone left Monday’s hearing trying to interpret exactly what Robart meant during his fairly brief remarks. He offered no decision Monday, instead giving the city, the federal Department of Justice (DOJ), and the CPC 20 minutes each to make their case about the police union contract. In between their testimony, he offered occasional analysis and pointed questions, but it appears he will wait to make any decisions until after the City Council votes on the contract. The council plans to vote on Nov. 13. The union contract needs seven of the council’s nine members to pass.
The CPC voted unanimously earlier this month to call on the council to vote down the contract because they think it significantly weakens the city’s landmark police accountability reform, passed in May of last year.
Durkan said at a press conference following the hearing that she did not think Robart had grave concerns with the contract.
“I did not read frustration. I read that [he said] ‘I want everyone to know that this judge takes this very seriously,’” Durkan said.
Councilmember Lorena Gonzalez, who was the lead sponsor of the city's police reform package last year, was at Durkan’s side during the hearing and the subsequent press conference. She called on the council to approve the contract.
“My hope is that my colleagues will agree to ratify this contract so that we can put the contract in front of the court as part of the next step,” Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez said she does have some concerns with what’s in the union contract, but said the benefits outweigh the problems.
“I understand that the Community Police Commission is raising reasonable concerns,” Gonzalez said. “The standard of review that is reflected in the agreement is and can potentially be vague and ambiguous.”
Christina Fogg, an assistant U.S. Attorney representing the DOJ at the hearing, raised the same concerns at Monday’s hearing. She said the union contract may violate the consent decree the city is currently under because it creates a new standard for firing officers when firing that officer could be stigmatizing against their future employment in law enforcement. In those instances, the city must establish a higher threshold of evidence, vaguely described as an “elevated standard of review.” Fogg said the vagueness in this means it could possibly be applied to all officer terminations.
“What offenses could be considered stigmatizing to officers? Will this expand the classes of offenses that will be reviewed by a higher standard of proof?” Fogg asked Monday.
The DOJ did not ask Robart to make any decisions at Monday’s meeting, and instead asked him to wait until the council acts on the agreement and until the DOJ can get more information about this higher burden of proof. Robart said he felt the DOJ wasn’t being totally forthright with their positions.
“It’s clear they are holding their position on the contract close to their chest,” Robart said, referring to the DOJ.
It’s worth noting that this is far from the same DOJ that originally sued the city over concerns of police brutality and unconstitutional policing. That was the Obama Administration, we’re now of course living under the regime of Donald Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions. It probably wouldn’t go over well in the D.C. offices if headlines in Seattle said that the DOJ was fighting police unions and attempting to block a favorable police union contract.
The CPC thinks the vagueness of terminations involving “stigmatizing towards future employment” means this higher threshold for termination could be invoked by virtually any officer that is ever fired for anything.
I asked Mayor Durkan at a press conference following the hearing if she could name a single situation where an officer is terminated that would not be considered stigmatizing to towards future employment. She responded that that “was more than a two-minute answer,” and walked away from the podium. A spokesperson for the mayor later sent me a document that replied directly to the CPC’s criticism, saying that the standard would be decided by an arbiter which would not be a fundamental change to the city’s accountability ordinance.
“Instead this change will allow arbitrators to determine the appropriate standard determination for dishonesty cases in the same manner as other types of misconduct,” the mayor’s document said.
The spokesperson was not able to provide a situation where an officer being fired would not be considered “stigmatizing.”
Durkan has repeatedly emphasized that not approving this police union contract would sacrifice public safety in the city because officers haven’t been given a raise since 2014 when the last police union contract with the city’s non-management police officers expired. The non-management labor union voted against a contract in 2016.
Robart asked the city to stop emphasizing police wages in federal court, saying that he didn’t see it as his role to consider salaries.
“Salary is not my issue… I saw it creep in what I thought was a pretty sleazy way. Let’s take that one off the table and let’s concentrate on the constitutional reform,” Robart said.
Robart also had harsh words for the 2 percent pay bonus officers receive when they wear body cameras, calling the bonus a “bribe.”
“What I hear is a two percent bribe for them to follow an order that I have already entered in this case,” Robart said.