On December 31, the city’s contract with the union representing Seattle’s roughly 1,350 sworn officers expired. This isn’t terribly unusual; contracts for employee unions often expire, and when they do workers often just operate temporarily under the terms of the old agreement until a new one is worked out. But this time, Seattle Police Officers Guild (SPOG) president Richard O’Neill has vowed to file a legal challenge with the state’s labor board—a lawsuit against the city, essentially—over one particular sticking point after a new contract is signed.

Asked if the city is prepared to fight the police union's challenge, City Attorney Pete Holmes says: “We’re ready, we have the memos, we’re ready to roll." But he wonders if the challenge will happen at all.

At issue, as I reported in October, is a charged political conflict over whether officers sued for alleged misconduct are entitled to private attorneys at their chosen law firm, Stafford Frey Cooper, on the city’s dime. The police union says they are entitled, by nonnegotiable contract terms, to those private and expensive lawyers. But the city, namely police-accountability watchdog Holmes, insists officers aren’t entitled to pricey attorneys and that the city's lawyers can handle most of those cases. In cases where there’s a conflict of interest for city lawyers, Holmes wants to get competing bids from law firms who want to represent Seattle police.

Will SPOG actually take the legal action it's threatening?

O’Neill in the past has said unequivocally: “We will file legal action against the city.” But he wouldn’t comment this week while negotiations bound by a confidentiality agreement were still underway.

The contract between cops and the city will be signed regardless, likely in the first quarter of the year, says Holmes. But getting to an agreeable contract still won't solve the underlying question of what type of legal representation cops are entitle to, so when Holmes issues his promised request for competing law firm bids, we’ll see if SPOG actually follows through with a legal challenge. Meanwhile, SPOG is holding its internal elections—elections that demand union leaders to look out for beat cops at a time when scrutiny over misconduct cases is intense.

“He’s doing what you would expect,” says Holmes. “A lot of this is theater.”