The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Washington and 23 other community groups have called on the Seattle City Council to reject a new contract with the city's largest police union, calling the contract "significantly flawed" because it undermines police accountability in the city.
“The accountability system is so weakened by these departures from the ordinance in the tentative contract that we cannot agree to its adoption,” said Estela Ortega, executive director of El Centro de la Raza, in a press release. “We urge the council to vote no.”
The City Council plans to vote on the new union contract on Nov. 13. The contract needs the support of seven out of the nine members to be approved.
Mayor Jenny Durkan negotiated the contract with the Seattle Police Officers Guild (SPOG), which represents more than 1,000 non-management police officers in the city, and unveiled the contract last month. SPOG has been operating for almost four years without a contract while negotiations stalled amidst a federal court order to reform the police department. SPOG voted down a different proposed contract in 2016.
The contract was immediately criticized by the Community Police Commission (CPC), a city commission established to provide community input on policing in the city. The CPC claims the new contract weakens many of the police reforms that were established in last year's landmark police accountability law. Durkan agreed to have the union's contract supersede the city's new accountability law anytime the contract comes in conflict with the city's police accountability laws, and the CPC has released a long list of places where the union contract weakens the city's laws.
In their letter to the councilmembers today, the ACLU-led community groups point directly at the contract's weakening of the city's discipline review process. The city's accountability laws allow only one avenue for appeal when a police officer wants to contest discipline findings, but the new union contract allows "multiple avenues of appeal without the same level of transparency and standards," according to the ACLU's letter.
The letter also points to the creation of a new legal standard for firing a cop for misconduct. The union contract says that when a police officer is fired for anything that could be "stigmatizing" for future employment, that termination must meet an "elevated standard of review." The CPC and the other community groups think that this vague rule would give cops a favorable route to appeal decisions in essentially all terminations, because anytime a cop is fired it could be considered "stigmatizing." I asked Durkan at a press conference earlier in the week if she could name an instance where firing a cop would not be considered stigmatizing, but she declined to answer.
The city is currently under a federal consent decree to reform its police department after the federal government sued Seattle in 2011 for using excessive force and violating the U.S. Constitution. The federal judge enforcing the consent decree seemed to be skeptical of this new police union contract, but withheld his judgement during a court hearing on Monday. He said he would wait until the City Council made its decision before he would make any decision of his own.
Councilmember Lorena González said at Monday's press conference that while the elevated standard for terminations could "potentially be vague and ambiguous," she supports the contract overall.
"I think that on balance in my mind we have been able to achieve a lot and it is my expectation and hope that we will be able to ratify this tentative agreement," Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez was the lead sponsor of last year's legislation that the CPC claims this contract undermines. We'll see on Tuesday if six of her colleagues share her same opinion.