Contract blues

The cops' union and politicians square off on reforms aimed at preventing police abuse.

For those who have long sought to reform the Seattle Police Department's woefully lax misconduct procedures, the city has generally had one answer: Don't blame us, blame the union—namely the powerful Seattle Police Officers Guild. City Council member Margaret Pageler decries the "blockages that the police guild has put on the investigative process" through its contract, which controls such things as whether investigators can conduct face-to-face interviews with officers accused of wrongdoing (usually no). In light of a call for sweeping change issued in August by a citizen's review panel, Pageler claims the city had for years fought for the same thing during collective bargaining with the guild.

All of a sudden, however, it seems that the guild contract is not such a big obstacle after all. Last week, Mayor Paul Schell and Police Chief Norm Stamper called a press conference to roll out an "Accountability Action Plan," a somewhat weaker version of the review panel's report. What's more, they announced they intend to implement the plan whether the union agrees to it or not.

Not everyone agrees on the wisdom of this unilateral approach. The guild, of course, is furious. "If the intention is to mandate changes, then we've got a big problem," says guild president Mike Edwards. "If that in fact is the case, we'll be sitting down with our attorneys and figuring out what our recourse is." Tina Podlodowski, chair of the City Council's public safety committee, winces at the mayor and chief's "posturing in the press" that she believes may only serve to "get people stuck in their positions."

Still, it's clear that in the past the city was not playing all of its cards—not even, it turns out, the obvious one of aggressive bargaining. Take the crucial issue of shredding records. Right now, the contract allows the police department to keep investigative records for unsubstantiated complaints on file for only three years, after which it destroys documentation even for investigations that proved inconclusive. So if five years down the line, a similar complaint comes up, nobody knows. The mayor's Action Plan proposes keeping all records for seven years, while the citizen's review panel recommended doing so permanently.

"I've not been pushed hard on that issue since I've been here," says the guild's Edwards, who is on his second round of negotiations as president and previously was a shop steward. In fact, he doesn't remember it ever coming up before. He says he's also heard little about making investigation records public or about withdrawing the right of officers to exchange vacation or comp time for a suspension, two other issues that have recently surfaced.

Tom Weeks, who sat on the City Council from 1990 to '96 and was for a time chair of its labor committee, has a similar recollection. "These were not major issues that the city fought for," he says. Instead, he says, the city was focused on financial issues during contract negotiations.

To some extent, Weeks says, the reason was political. "If you challenge the guild on any of the issues they care about, they will not only endorse your opponent, but spend money in their campaigns." He says that scenario is dreaded by politicians because it can paint them as soft on crime.

That's what Weeks says happened to him when he wrestled with the guild even on an issue unrelated to crime; he wanted to have civilians perform traffic control at special events like Seafair in order to reduce police overtime costs. The guild, he says, was "outraged. They said I didn't care about public safety."

And yet, Weeks believes there's also a less Machiavellian reason for the city's inaction on police accountability. "Do I really think we have a real problem with corruption in the Seattle Police Department? No, I don't, and I don't think most electeds do." Consequently, he muses, "If I were to guess, I'd guess that after a lot of talk, there'd be very little change."

It's certainly worth keeping some perspective on the scope of the problem. The SPD may in fact appear squeaky clean compared to the NYPD. Nevertheless, there have been citizen complaints about shabby police treatment long before the political uproar caused by accusations against Sonny Davis, a homicide detective now on trial for charges of stealing money at a crime scene after police shot an elderly black man to death. And even as a matter of principle, procedures like the one that calls for the destruction of records seem terribly wrong.

Oddly, though, little public or media scrutiny has been cast on the collective bargaining process where all this is hammered out. That danger presents itself again this year, despite the public agonizing to date and last week's posturing, which implied that the negotiating process will be circumvented.

Of the most crucial issues in the mayor's Accountability Action Plan, the city intends to move immediately only on the creation of an Office of Public Accountability, headed by a civilian, to oversee internal investigations. Immediately, that is, after some haggling between Mayor Paul Schell and City Council members, who must sign off on the new office's budget. Podlodowski, the most outspoken on council on these matters, is primed to contest what she believes will hamstring the office as envisioned by the mayor and chief: The director is to pick a deputy from the ranks of SPD captains rather than the community at large.

On many other big issues, city director of labor relations Mike Schoeppach maintains that it is the city's eventual option to move unilaterally, but that it is the mayor's "preference" to work things out with the union in negotiations. That suggests significant compromise could happen in the closed-door sessions. In attendance are representatives only of the union and mayor's office; even council members have to be briefed on what transpired. Since the council must ratify the contract, however, there's room for its influence as well.

Negotiations are already under way on a new three-year contract, as the current one expires on December 31, but were waiting for an agenda from the mayor before delving into disciplinary matters.

It's hard to say how much resistance the city will get from the union in negotiations. When asked about specifics, guild president Edwards takes an approach full of mannered naﶥt鮠"What is the point and purpose" of making investigative records public, he wants to know, referring to a recommendation by the citizens' review panel that was ultimately shot down by the mayor and chief (but could be resurrected by the council). He defends the truth-defying practice of making investigators submit written questions to accused officers—with a 10-day response time—in place of face-to-face interviews, a practice under attack in the mayor' s Action Plan.

"There's a reason we have this stuff," Edwards contends. "We're concerned about abuse." He says that in "the bad old days" before the contract addressed this issue, investigators were "going out yanking officers off the street, threatening them with their jobs" and using coercive tactics like locking them up in an interview room for hours.

Even so, Edwards maintains that the union is "open to dialogue" on that and all issues, a statement that may be more than a pose. The guild has its own beefs with the disciplinary process, one being a degree of arbitrariness in punishment. According to Edwards, the union went to the city a year ago, before the Davis-inspired hoopla began, to initiate talks on an overhaul of the system. "We told them we were open to sitting down and opening the whole thing up, A to Z."

Edwards wasn't feeling quite as charitable after the mayor and chief's press conference last week, where they made a public show at least of thumbing their noses at the union. "It's a much bigger deal now," he says.

If the city really does intend to stick to its agenda no matter what the union's opinion, then the guild has the option of filing an unfair labor practices grievance with the state Public Employee Relations Commission, a body that is not known to be sympathetic to the city in labor disputes.

That kind of confrontation might be necessary if the city is to affect real change. But you could forgive the union for thinking: If this stuff is so damned important, why hasn't the city really fought for it before?

 
comments powered by Disqus