Mayor Jenny Durkan’s response to a problematic police union contract is creating clear divisions between her office and the City Council, with three council members writing a letter to the mayor on Monday calling on her to stop delaying police reform and re-open contract negotiations as soon as possible.
The letter—signed by Lorena González, Teresa Mosqueda, and Lisa Herbold—comes after a federal judge ruled in May that the recently approved union contract had thrown the city out of compliance with federally-mandated reforms at the Seattle Police Department (SPD). Durkan's response to that ruling has thus far been to hire consulting firm staffed by ex-cops to study the problem, which local police-reform groups have called a "slap in the face."
The council member’s strongly-worded letter (which the Seattle Times characterized as “highly unusual”) is a change of heart for the three lawmakers, who all three voted in November to approve the contract with the Seattle Police Officer’s Guild (SPOG). That council vote came despite calls from the city’s own police watchdog, the Community Police Commission (CPC), as well as two dozen other community groups to vote the contract down. Those groups warned that the contract would weaken or erase a substantial portion of the city’s police accountability laws.
U.S District Judge James Robart, who is overseeing the city’s court-ordered reforms, ultimately agreed with the community groups, ruling in May that the contract weakened police accountability in Seattle and ordering the mayor to work with the CPC and the court monitor to fix the problem. Now the city is left in an uncomfortable position where they have to fix a union contract that they’ve already approved.
Durkan’s office has so far taken two major steps: hired a consulting firm from Chicago to study the problem and then missed a July 15 deadline to tell Robart how they plan to remedy the situation.
González said at a press conference Monday, surrounded by many of the same community groups that asked her to vote against the contract back in November, that she wants the mayor to take a different course. González wants Durkan to immediately start negotiating with SPOG to fix problems in the contract. González said Monday that their request was not an infringement on labor unions’ right to bargain with the city.
“Asking for additional police reform is fundamentally not anti-cop or anti-labor,” González said. “What we are not doing today is unilaterally demanding that the current SPOG contract be voided or reopened… rather we are requesting, we are asking that SPOG jointly come to the table to address the concerns by Judge Robart.”
Mark Prentice, a spokesperson for the mayor, declined to answer if she planned on renegotiating aspects of the SPOG contract, saying in an e-mail that the mayor’s office had briefed the council twice on their progress.
“The City will not propose any potential next steps without the input of the Monitor, community, and our accountability partners, and without the review and approval of Judge Robart,” Prentice said in an e-mail. “We have a binding collective bargaining agreement and also are obligated to respect state law governing labor relations.”
Diane Narasaki, the former director of the Asian Counseling and Referral Service, one of the groups that originally called on the council to not pass the SPOG contract, said at a Monday press conference that hiring the private consultants was a “slap in the face” to the local police reform community.
“Stop wasting our community's time, respect the work that we have done to reform the system, as exemplified by the CPC, which should be used as a roadmap to achieve compliance,” Narasaki said.
One of Robart’s primary concerns is that the SPOG contract changed the discipline review process for when the police chief fires or punishes a cop. The contract allows an outside arbitrator to overrule discipline decisions made by the chief of police, a process that was widely considered favorable to cops and was removed when the city rewrote their police accountability laws in 2017. Robart and the CPC’s fears were recently confirmed when an outside arbitrator gave Officer Adley Shepherd his job back after the police chief fired the officer for punching a handcuffed women in the face while she sat in a patrol car.
But changing the discipline review process will require SPOG to voluntarily re-open negotiations, effectively giving the already powerful police union even more power over police accountability in the city. Kevin Stuckey, the president of SPOG, did not return The Stranger’s request for comment.
Andre Taylor, a police reform activist and the founder of Not This Time, said SPOG’s role in blocking accountability was problematic.
“I have been concerned with SPOG, because over these three years I have personally asked them, Kevin Stuckey, to get involved with these relationships with community. And guess what, not one time have they decided to do so,” Taylor said Monday.
Taylor added that the community groups had consistently supported increasing officers’ wages.
“We agreed with their pay increase but they are disagreeing with police accountability,” Taylor said.
González said she would have voted against the union contract in November but community groups had asked her to approve pay raises for the officers.
"Had community come to me and said, 'don’t approve the wages because we can’t stomach the accountability,' I would have voted no on that contract," González said.
Police reform in Seattle has been under federal oversight since 2012 when Seattle entered into a consent decree agreement following a damning federal investigation. Robart’s May ruling extended federal oversight by another two years from whenever the city is able to satisfy his demands for police accountability.
The SPOG contract also expires in 2020, giving the city another chance to rewrite the union’s contract. González, Mosqueda, and Herbold want the mayor to begin those negotiations as soon as possible.
Need a refresher on police reform in Seattle? Here's a brief timeline:
December, 2011: The Department of Justice releases a report finding that SPD has engaged in a pattern of excessive force. To avoid a federal lawsuit, the city agrees to a “consent decree” wherein the city reforms its police force while under supervision of a federal judge and police monitor.
May, 2017: City Council passes landmark police reforms touching on nearly ever aspect of police accountability in the city, including reforming how offers are disciplined.
January, 2018: Judge Robart rules the city is in “full and effective compliance” with mandated police reforms but warns that union contracts reversing reforms the court-ordered progress will be “imperiled.”
Nov. 6, 2018: Robart issues warning to the city that he does not think the new union contract complies with court-mandated reforms. Durkan claims, in court, that every aspect of the contract advances accountability reforms. González urges her colleagues to support the contract.
Nov. 8, 2018: ACLU and 23 other community groups urge the council not to pass the contract.
Nov. 13, 2018: City council approves SPOG contract in a 8-1 vote. Council Member Kshama Sawant is the only member to vote against the contract.
May 21, 2019: Judge Robart rules that the SPOG contract has put the city back out of compliance on court-mandated reforms as they relate to police accountability.