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Seattle police union contract faces obstacles from community

Police Chief Carmen Best has called the tentative contract reached in August crucial to retaining and recruiting officers.

By Steve Miletich
The Seattle Times

SEATTLE — In a major blow, 24 community groups on Thursday urged the City Council to reject a tentative contract her administration negotiated with the city’s rank-and-file police union.

Among those who signed a letter to the council were representatives of El Centro de la Raza, the ACLU of Washington, Mothers for Police Accountability, the Public Defender Association and the Asian Counseling and Referral Service.

In announcing the letter at a news conference, the groups joined the city-sponsored Community Police Commission, a citizen advisory body, in calling for rejection of the proposed contract with the Seattle Police Officers Guild (SPOG) on the grounds it rolls back hard-earned police-accountability and disciplinary legislation enacted by the council last year.

“Today the council stands at a critical juncture,whether to take the community a step backward on accountabily or to vote no and we are asking the council to reject that agreement,” Michele Storms, deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, said of the tentative contract.

Diane Narasaki, executive director of Asian Counseling and Referral Service, said the proposed contract “falls far short of what our city needs and deserves for accountability of our Seattle Police Department.”

The announcement comes three days after U.S. District Judge James Robart, who is presiding over a 2012 consent decree requiring the Seattle Police Department to address excessive force and biased policing, expressed concerns about some elements of the proposed contract during a court hearing Monday. Video of the hearing has been posted online.

If the City Council ratifies the deal during a vote scheduled for Tuesday, Robart will review it to determine if any of its provisions violate the consent decree.

For council approval, seven of nine council members must vote in favor of the contract, which contains wage increases for more than 1,300 officers and sergeants retroactive to 2015. The council cannot amend the agreement.

In their letter, the 24 community organizations and coalitions said the tentative contract gives too much deference to SPOG when there is a conflict between the contract and the accountability legislation; allows multiple avenues of disciplinary appeals without full transparency; and creates a higher burden of proof to uphold firings when the result could be stigmatizing.

Durkan’s office responded with a statement from spokesman Mark Prentice, who noted that “Friends can disagree,” and that Durkan had been involved in police reform efforts for almost 30 years.

Prentice said the mayor insisted on a contract that advances reform, protects public safety and pays fair wages to officers. Included are body-worn cameras; unfettered oversight authority by a civilian inspector general; the ability of the police chief to transfer or suspend officers; ensuring that fired officers are not reinstated on a technicality; and providing pay increases to officers who have not seen a raise since 2014, he said.

“A rejection of the Tentative Agreement would jeopardize public safety, deal a setback to reform, and return Seattle to the status quo, which is why many community members, labor leaders, and businesses across the City strongly support this Tentative Agreement,” Prentice said.

Some of the groups who announced Thursday’s action had signed a letter in December 2010, authored by the ACLU of Washington and joined by 34 civil-rights and community organizations, asking the Department of Justice (DOJ) for a formal investigation into the police department.

That investigation led to findings that Seattle police routinely used excessive force and presented evidence of biased policing and led to the consent decree, which was signed by then-U. S. Attorney Durkan.

The Community Police Commission, a creation of the consent decree, maintains that the tentative contract weakens the Police department’s ability to discipline and fire officers. It unanimously voted last month to urge the council to reject the deal.

The commission has suggested that officers be paid deserved wage hikes, but that talks on reforms be reopened, a position echoed by speakers at Thursday’s news conference.

Durkan and Police Chief Carmen Best have called the tentative contract reached in August crucial to retaining and recruiting officers.

The guild overwhelmingly approved the proposed contract in September.