The key to this? Restricting police union contract negotiations on discipline.
The key to this? Restricting police union contract negotiations on discipline. Lester Black

This year the legislature is going hard on police reform. One bill calls for a ban on chokeholds, no-knock warrants, and tear gas. Other bills would establish a statewide body to review use-of-force cases.

None of those bills would mean anything and officers could still get away with breaking those new rules, Sen. Jesse Salomon argued in a committee meeting yesterday, if "we don't change the accountability system."

Currently, police union contracts can negotiate any disciplinary action and can use an arbitration process to contest discipline. All of this creates the environment we see today where cops are very rarely fired for misconduct, let alone held appropriately accountable for their actions. Nationwide, around 52% of cops see their disciplines reduced or overturned.

Mayor Jenny Durkan testified yesterday about the flaws in "our accountability system for law enforcement." It doesn't work "when an officer who violates policy is terminated by the police chief or sheriff only to be reinstated by an arbitrator on appeal," Durkan said.

Councilmember Lisa Herbold, who also spoke at the hearing, said Seattle currently has an "appeals backlog of 80 and growing" that consist of challenges to misconduct filings from the Seattle Police chief, and some appeals from over five years ago.

Durkan said that an arbitrator of appeal "sometimes looks at different evidence, conducts a new hearing, and supplants the judgment and discipline decisions of the chief or sheriff," Durkan said. "This provides uncertainty in discipline, undermines public trust, and undermines a chief’s ability to maintain accountability in a department."

Two Senate bills are seeking to change this process.

Senate Bill 5055 sponsored by Sens. Joe Nguyen and Rebecca Saldaña creates an arbitrator selection process and restricts the arbitrators officers can hire for grievances to a pre-established pool of nine arbitrators.

Meanwhile, Senate Bill 5134, sponsored by Sens. Salomon, Jeannie Darneille, Mona Das, Claire Wilson, Jamie Pedersen, and Sam Hunt, would cut negotiations around discipline and oversight out of police contract negotiations, disallow arbitration for misconduct appeals, and lists out instances of misconduct which will mandate an officer be discharged.

If SB 5134 is passed, an officer in Washington state who commits any of the following actions will be discharged.

  • Use of excessive force or being present, aware of another officer's use of excessive force, and able to intervene, and failing to intervene or report another officer's use of excessive force;

  • Knowingly hiding material evidence, failing to report exonerating information, or making materially misleading, deceptive, untrue, or fraudulent statements or representations during an investigation, in law enforcement documents or reports, or while testifying under oath

  • Knowingly hiding material evidence, failing to report exonerating information, or making materially misleading, deceptive, untrue, or fraudulent statements or representations during an investigation, in law enforcement documents or reports, or while testifying under oath

  • Serious or repeated harassment or discrimination based on a legally protected class defined

  • Commission of or conviction of a felony offense under the laws of this state, or of a comparable offense under federal law or the laws of another state

  • Acting with deliberate indifference to a substantial risk of harm to a person in custody

  • Engaging in sexual contact with a person who has been detained, who is in custody, or where under the totality of the circumstances a reasonable person would believe he or she was facing 11 the possibility of being detained or taken into custody
  • Durkan, who previously supported the City of Seattle's discipline system for police, was one of the louder voices last summer advocating for this reform.

    "In Seattle, we have already made some changes to our arbitration process," Durkan said, "including how we select arbitrators, but under state law we are required to negotiate nearly every aspect of police discipline with our police union. In other words, police unions can maintain the status quo unless we create a statewide standard for appeals."

    The big issue with these reforms, which also have the support of Seattle City Councilmember Lisa Herbold, Seattle Community Police Commissioner Colleen Echohawk, Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards, is that they restrict a labor union's contract negotiations, which could draw the ire of other labor unions.

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    However, Durkan argued yesterday that the police's "state-sanctioned ability to deprive individuals of liberty and life" means they need to be held to higher standards than other unions. Plus, as David Kroman pointed out in Crosscut, Martin Luther King Labor Council kicked out the Seattle Police Officer's Guild. They clearly weren't too worried about what happened to the police union. Maybe other labor will feel the same?

    The pro-police side came out strongly against these bills in the hearings yesterday. As the bills progress through the legislative process, the opposition will likely grow.

    "If Olympia does not act on arbitration and strengthen the proposal," Durkan said, "here are the real consequences: officers terminated or disciplined for significant misconduct will continue to be reinstated."