Politics
A Seattle Police officer watches counter-protesters as they stand behind barricades across the street from an anti-Islamic law rally Saturday, June 10, 2017, in Seattle.
Enlarge Icon
A Seattle Police officer watches counter-protesters as they stand behind barricades across the street from an anti-Islamic law rally Saturday, June 10, 2017, in Seattle.
Credit: AP Photo/Ted S. Warren

Seattle police reform: Here’s how City Council candidates would solve the problem

Seattle’s City Council candidates say complying with the federal consent decree for constitutional policing is a high priority.

But most of them emphasize the importance of bargaining any changes with the Seattle Police Officers Guild.

Only a few candidates signal their support for the Community Police Commission and other groups pressing for changes to the disciplinary system.

Seattle’s incoming City Ccouncil candidates will face several competing priorities around policing: the need to convince a federal judge that the city’s police accountability system is sound and constitutional; the need to hire and retain police officers; and the need to maintain public confidence in policing, even as the Community Police Commission continues to raise concerns over the city’s approach.

KUOW asked the 14 candidates in seven district races, “What is the path forward now that Judge Robart has found Seattle out of compliance with the federal consent decree?"

"Do you support Mayor Durkan’s decision to hire outside consultants to look at police accountability systems?"

"Would you have sought to re-open negotiations with SPOG on the disciplinary system in their most recent contract? Please describe your approach if elected.”

In an August court filing, the city said it was hiring the firm 21CP to compare Seattle's police accountability system to others nationwide. It states, “the outcome will be objective, evidence-based observations about the strengths and weaknesses of the City’s accountability system which will assist the City in collective bargaining," scheduled to formally commence with SPOG in March 2020.

Shaun Scott in District 4 struck the most confrontational tone towards SPOG, saying Seattle needs to overcome “a long legacy of racist policing.”

He wrote, “The path forward is for City Council to make it clear that it will not ratify pay increases, fund improvements to police facilities, or ratify any future SPOG contracts until SPOG returns to the bargaining table and outlines its plan for getting out from under federal investigation of the Department of Justice.”

And incumbent Kshama Sawant in District 3 noted that she was the only council member to vote against approving the latest SPOG contract for its accountability provisions, although she supported its increased wages and benefits.

“In my view, the issue is not the Mayor needing consultants,” she said. “What is lacking is the political will to enact the police accountability sorely needed.”

Philip Tavel in District 1 said he’s “disappointed” that the city is now spending money on outside consultants, but said it’s crucial that the city meet the terms of the consent decree and move forward.

“If that means finding experts outside of Seattle that can help us satisfy Judge Robart, then so be it,” he said.

“I would have looked to reopen negotiations with SPOG to come up with a disciplinary system that had a clearer chance of being found compliant with the original court order."

Tammy Morales in District 2 and incumbent Lisa Herbold in District 1 expressed the strongest support for the Community Police Commission and other civil rights groups that have been pressing for changes to the police accountability and disciplinary system.

Morales wrote that Durkan should adopt the CPC’s recommendations “instead of hiring out-of-state consultants with no prior involvement in Seattle’s consent decree work.”

But she added that “the labor rights of law enforcement officers should not be pitted against the civil rights of Seattleites.”

Herbold said, “I am not comfortable with the path the Mayor appears to be taking because, among other things, it doesn’t appear to be focused on using the expertise of the CPC to address Judge Robart’s ruling.”

She said elected officials have a duty to “facilitate full compliance with the consent decree as soon as possible.”

Former Seattle police chief Jim Pugel in District 7 said it’s notable that Durkan’s decision to hire the consultants pitted her against her former allies, the civil rights groups that pressed for the investigation of SPD when she was U.S. Attorney.

“It’s interesting to see that everyone [at the city] who was wanting reform, and rightfully so, now says we are reformed enough,” Pugel said.

But he said “as far as I know the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild is playing by the rules set forward in state law,” and could not be compelled to return to the bargaining table.

Pugel said if elected he hopes to serve on the city’s Labor Relations Policy Committee to closely monitor contract negotiations.

Most candidates stressed the need to protect the collective bargaining process, while working to resolve the judge's concerns.

Specifically Robart cited an arbitration process that allowed an officer to be reinstated despite the police chief's decision to fire him for punching a handcuffed woman.

Mark Solomon in District 2 wrote, “As a union member, I didn’t see the necessity of reopening a negotiated and signed labor agreement at this time,” but said “discussions on accountability can and should happen continuously.”

Andrew Lewis in District 1 said, “this is a unique circumstance where a federal judge has flagged that he has certain issues with the contract and wants to see those resolved in order to maintain our compliance with the consent decree. If SPOG elected to reopen the contract now, to try to resolve some of those issues, I think the city should say, ‘we are happy to entertain that.’ But that’s completely their call. It’s the call of any union.”

They, along with Alex Pedersen in District 4, noted that the existing contract is also expiring at the end of 2020 anyway.

Pedersen said, “I believe we should start negotiations on the next contract now to remedy the remaining disciplinary issues identified by the federal judge because, realistically, it will take at least that long to negotiate and finalize a new contract.”

Heidi Wills in District 6 said she has “no issue with Mayor Durkan’s decision to hire outside consultants to look at our accountability systems.

"She pushed for Seattle to be under the consent decree to begin with so we wouldn’t here if it weren’t for her leadership. I would not have sought to re-open negotiations with SPOG on the disciplinary system in their most recent contract. I respect the collective bargaining process.”

Dan Strauss in District 6 said “negotiations with the Guild should start as soon as possible.”

He said that “seven years is too long for this process to unfold” and that the consent decree has hurt morale and contributed to staffing problems at SPD.

And finally in District 5, Ann Davison Sattler said “divisiveness at the city level” was responsible for the protracted process leading to the last SPOG contract.

And at the CityClub debate Sept. 21, District 5 incumbent Debora Juarez said that Seattle is in fact not out of compliance with the federal consent decree.

“I read the opinion by Judge Robart and I also read the transcript. They did not find us out of compliance," she said.

"Under the 2012 consent decree there were three issues: excessive force, biased policing, and the accountability regime. The first two counts: we’re good. The third count was the accountability regime. The accountability regime was negotiated in a contract with SPOG and that is what we have collective bargaining with. Some of those issues had reopeners but one of them was not the accountability.”

She noted that the city successfully appealed and prevented Officer Adley Shepherd’s reinstatement but said any changes to the police accountability system must be made through bargaining.

“You would be entertaining an unfair labor practice if we were to interject,” she said. “And we heard from labor that they don’t want to hear us opening negotiated contracts.”

Retired judge Anne Levinson, who has submitted declarations to Robart on behalf of the Community Police Commission, said Juarez’ response during the debate was incorrect.

“Judge Robart explicitly found that Seattle has fallen out of compliance with the consent decree because it agreed to police contracts that undercut or eliminated reforms to the accountability system, particularly with regard to discipline and disciplinary appeals,” Levinson said.

She noted that the mayor and city council have equal responsibility for setting the priorities to be bargained through the city's Labor Relations Policy Committee.

And even as candidates say compliance with the consent decree is a high priority, Levinson said community groups are apprehensive about the long-term impact of the process.

“Certainty that other reforms achieved through the Consent Decree will be sustained over time is now diminished by these give-backs and by the breadth of ways the contract terms may be used to challenge the Chief’s authority, delay outcomes, and create other obstacles that will impede accountability,” she said.

More candidate responses here, some edited for length:

District 1

Lisa Herbold:

“I believe it is my duty to do what I can as an elected official to facilitate full compliance with the Consent Decree as soon as possible, so that officers do not have to continue to work under federal oversight which I believe hurts morale and contributes to both the loss of officers and recruitment shortfalls. I want a system of constitutional policing that is fair for officers, and that will not inhibit the likelihood of new officers joining the department, or result in current officers leaving the department; a system that meets the requirements of the federal judge overseeing the Consent Decree. I believe we should strive together towards meeting the terms as soon as possible, so that the city regains compliance and begins the clock for the two-year maintenance period. I believe negotiations should begin sooner rather than later (keeping in mind the legally required notice period), to seek to meet these goals, and to maximize the chances for a contract in 2021.

I am not comfortable with the path the Mayor appears to be taking, because, among other things, it doesn’t appear to be focused on using the expertise of the CPC or to address Judge Robart’s ruling. In ruling the City out of compliance with the Consent Decree on accountability, he noted, “Finally, the court also is not ruling today that—to be in full and effective compliance—the City must necessarily return to the provisions of the Accountability Ordinance referenced herein as those provisions existed prior to collective bargaining.” This is why I believe the City should begin negotiations for a 2021 contract, and separately, to also work with the CPC and our labor partners on a potential answer to Judge Robart’s findings. That solution doesn’t need to replicate the content of the Accountability Ordinance. We can work together to find a solution to bring to Judge Robart to consider in our shared interest in bringing us back into full compliance.”

Phil Tavel:

“The most important thing at this point is to get into full compliance with the court's order regarding the consent decree. We are having enough issues as a city with hiring new police officers and retaining our current officers. Having the consent decree hanging over the head of our police department makes addressing those two staffing issues much more difficult. I'm disappointed that we are now looking to spend more money to bring in outside consultants to help us with these issues when this is something we should have been able to do ourselves. However, I believe that it is more important that we get this right, once and for all. If that means finding experts outside of Seattle that can help us satisfy Judge Robart, then so be it.

I would have looked to reopen negotiations with SPOG to come up with a disciplinary system that had a clearer chance of being found compliant with the original court order. If elected to Council, I will work much more closely with the City Attorney and SPOG to address all of the issues of the consent decree, the ongoing concerns of the people of Seattle and also the concerns and needs of our police department to be both meaningfully accountable, while at the same time not making them feel as though they have to constantly operate under a microscope. The issue of satisfying the consent decree is crucial to allowing our city to move forward with addressing the public safety issues we are now experiencing, while achieving a truly transparent and fully accountable system of police oversight. As a member of the City Council I will make it clear to SPOG that my desire is to be working with them to find the right answers, and not against them.”

District 2

Tammy Morales:

“Judge Robart’s decision confirmed what community organizations like ACLU, Mothers for Police Accountability, Seattle King County NAACP and Church Council of Greater Seattle have been saying - that the latest contract eliminated accountability measures that were adopted by the city council in 2017. I agree with ACLU and other community organizations that Mayor Durkan should honor the work of our neighbors and the Community Police Commission. She should adopt their recommendations instead of hiring out-of-state consultants with no prior involvement in Seattle’s consent decree work.

More importantly, the labor rights of law enforcement officers should not be pitted against the civil rights of Seattleites. I will work with my colleagues on the council, the Community Police Commission, community organizations, and SPD to ensure we have a good-faith public discussion on police accountability. That would include ensuring that Councilmembers have a technical advisor with expertise in accountability available to them during bargaining. I will work to make this process as transparent and accountable to our communities as possible.”

Mark Solomon:

“Judge Robart’s focus is narrowly aimed at an aspect of the police disciplinary process having to do with officer appeals of decisions made by the Chief. This should not discount the progress SPD and the City have made over the years on reform. The path forward is for all parties to continue to dialog and work together. The outcome we all want is an accountability system that works for Seattle and can be a model for the nation. Judge Robart instructed the city to come up with a plan to address this, which was done.

The Mayor’s proposal, which included hiring outside consultants, was rejected by the Community Police Commission and others who feel that we have the answers right here. We should examine other models of police accountability so we can adopt best practices, but that doesn’t mean we wait to move forward locally. The City should get further clarity from Judge Robart soon on what he believes needs to be done to rectify this issue. As a Union member, I didn’t see the necessity of reopening a negotiated and signed labor agreement at this time; SPOG and the City will re-enter collective bargaining in short order anyway as the current contract expires in 2020. I think discussions on accountability can and should happened continuously, not just in the context of contract negotiations.

My approach is to work with all parties – community stakeholders, the Community Police Commission, SPD staff at all levels, including civilian staff - to foster dialog, understanding and trust. This is the work I’ve been doing for over 29 years; building bridges between the community and the police. As the City Councilmember for District 2, I will continue this work. We have made progress in under the consent decree and this needs to be acknowledged. There is more work to be done and there is always room for improvement.”

District 3

Egan Orion:

"The SPOG contract took three years to negotiate, with both sides participating in that process in good faith. Unfortunately, the City's bargaining team did not secure needed reforms in that process. Now that the contract is in place, it should be respected by the city. If SPOG wants to come back to the table to renegotiate the contract, then the city can re-open it, but the tactics being used by some at city council to try to force SPOG back to the table goes against the most basic tenets of collective bargaining and is further poisoning the well for future negotiations. It is important that Seattle improve police accountability systems by working with the Seattle Police Department to rebuild trust with marginalized communities and to make sure we have all the information necessary to renegotiate the SPOG contract once it comes back up for renewal. However, at this point, the only way to renegotiate the current contract is either for SPOG to willingly agree to come back to the table or for Judge Robart to force the contract to be opened up and renegotiated."

Kshama Sawant:

“As a union member myself, and an elected representative of Seattle’s working people, I strongly support the right of all unions to negotiate fair contracts. As I said during the vote on the police contract, I supported the wages and benefits in the contract, but opposed the rollback of police accountability.

As you know, I was unfortunately the only elected representative to vote against the latest SPOG contract. In my view, the issue is not the Mayor needing consultants; what is lacking is the political will to enact the police accountability sorely needed.

The leadership of the police department and city political establishment have a long record of avoiding accountability even for the most egregious killings, like the death Charleena Lyles. We need a democratically-elected, independent community oversight board, with full powers over the police, including the right to subpoena officers, as has been demanded by local community organizers, and by the Movement for Black Lives.”

District 4

Alex Pedersen:

"Everyone in Seattle deserves to feel safe and we can have both constitutional policing and safe neighborhoods. With the Mayor's leadership, Seattle has achieved substantial progress on reforms and the federal judge has also confirmed we still have vital work to do on the disciplinary review process for full and sustained compliance with the consent decree. We also need to appreciate the good work of our first responders. The current contract made sense to provide overdue pay raises to retain current and attract new police officers, which our city is losing at an alarming rate. The current contract expires December 2020, so I believe we should start negotiations on the next contract now to remedy the remaining disciplinary issues identified by the federal just because, realistically, it will take at least that long to negotiate and finalize a new contract. Starting on the new contact now also enables us to respect labor laws. Ultimately, increasing public safety is our goal.”

Shaun Scott:

“I did not support Mayor Durkan's decision to skirt the mandates of the consent decree by hiring outside consultants, and I said so at the time. For many months in the District 4 Seattle City Council primary I was the only candidate to say I would not have voted in favor of the most recent SPOG contract. To my knowledge, I am the only candidate remaining in the race to maintain that position. District 4 is the area where the Seattle Police Department murdered Charleena Lyles, a pregnant, disabled Black woman. I have received close to a dozen letters from District 4 residents outlining their concerns about racist policing in Seattle.

Seattle needs to turn its back on a very long legacy of racist policing. That involves not ratifying any future contracts the roll back police accountability measures, and putting public pressure on SPOG and the Seattle Police Department. The path forward is for City Council to make it clear that it will not ratify pay increases, fund improvements to police facilities, or ratify any future SPOG contracts until SPOG returns to the bargaining table and outlines its plan for getting out from under federal investigation of the Department of Justice. In the meantime, we need to explore expanding the city's Community Service Officer program. CSO officers respond to domestic violence disputes and help people suffering mental health episodes. A demilitarized approach to policing, represented by the CSO, may have saved Charleena Lyles' life.”

District 5:

Neither candidate submitted a written response. These are their answers to the same question, from a CityClub debate Sept. 21.

Debora Juarez:

“Let me correct you first. I read the opinion by Judge Robart and I also read the transcript. They did not find us out of compliance. Under the 2012 consent decree there were three issues: excessive force, biased policing, and the accountability regime. The first two counts: we’re good. The third count was the accountability regime. The accountability regime was negotiated in a contract with SPOG and that is what we have collective bargaining with. Some of those issues had reopeners but one of them was not the accountability. One of the things I’m most proud of, and I did a bet with The Stranger, is that the King County Superior Court judge in August would repeal what the arbitrator did. And the judge did. He repealed and said the officer did use excessive force and will not get his job back. So our path forward is this. Because those are union-negotiated contracts, we’re not privy to those, you would be entertaining an unfair labor practice if we were to interject. And we heard from labor that they don’t want to hear us opening negotiated contracts.”

Ann Davison Sattler:

“I am familiar with labor negotiations as well. I think it’s a critical piece that this was done in a way that we make sure labor understands, we hear their voice and that management also has a voice as well. Like for example our renter’s commission that we recently formed, we don’t even have one landlord on that commission. We need to make sure we have both parties at the table, making sure an equal voice is heard. The reason why we’re having to talk about maybe reopening the CBA is because that wasn’t done, there was so much divisiveness going on at the city level that it took how many years until we had one. Years before our police officers had a CBA because we had to talk about things that were not being addressed. That consent decree is critical. Our police officers are people that are men and women there helping to protect us. We want to make sure that they are getting their fair share of what they want to have in their CBA, that the council is not the one dictating it, and that we listen to the negotiations that occurred.”

District 6

Heidi Wills:

“Continuous reform and improvement is a must for any modern police department. The best path forward is to continue to do the reform work necessary to ensure unbiased and constitutional policing so we build confidence in our community with its police department. We should continue to hold the police department accountable and at the same time, applaud the good work being done to strengthen relationships between police officers and the community they serve and provide better transparency.

I have no issue with Mayor Durkan’s decision to hire outside consultants to look at our accountability systems. In fact, she pushed for Seattle to be under the consent decree to begin with so we wouldn’t here if it weren’t for her leadership. I would not have sought to re-open negotiations with SPOG on the disciplinary system in their most recent contract. I respect the collect bargaining process. Renegotiation will come up again next year anyway. Culture change is hard and it takes time. There must be an ongoing commitment to reform, to unbiased policing, to de-escalation and to a decrease in the use of force. Seattle is on its way to becoming a national model for modern community policing while striving to be a learning organization making continual improvements. That should be the goal.”

Dan Strauss:

"I believe that the Mayor and City Council should work together to get Seattle Police Department into full compliance with the Consent Decree. The police department has been working under federal oversight for many years, which not only hurts morale but contributes to the staffing problems we are seeing today. Seven years is too long for this process to unfold, over three different mayors, three different police chiefs and two acting police chiefs. The city's leadership - both the mayor and the city council - must work together with the CPC and our labor unions to come up with an answer to Judge Robart’s findings. It's in all of our best interest to move forward and get into compliance as soon as possible.

The city must regain compliance as soon as possible, so that we can start the clock for the two-year sustainment period. Negotiations with the guild should start as soon as possible, so we can secure a contract in 2021 when it is up for renewal."

District 7

Andrew Lewis:

“We’re going to set a standard as a city for what constitutional policing in America looks like but that has to be manifested in a collective bargaining agreement, and has to be approached the way we would approach it with any other union in the city. Either we respect collective bargaining or we don’t.

One thing that I would flag there, though, is that even under the current system, we are getting accountability as a city by appealing unfavorable arbitration decisions on a public policy prong.... If there is an opinion that is unfavorable and flies in the face of public policy, the city will appeal that decision and as we saw a couple weeks ago, under the current accountability regime, the city was successful in its appeal.

If SPOG elected to reopen the contract now, to try to resolve some of those issues, I think the city should say, we are happy to entertain that. But that’s completely their call. It’s the call of any union. And we’re going back to the negotiating table fairly soon, in 2020 anyway. I think the important thing is, when we have a bargain, be it this year or next year, that the priorities of our bargain be to try and take care of some of the issues Judge Robart has flagged. Because constitutional policing is important, we’re setting a model for the rest of the country.”

Jim Pugel:

“Generally the settlement agreement dealt with improper use of force, a belief or suspicion that there could be biased policing, and investigations of misconduct among other things. To the best of my knowledge and having read agreement many times when it was first created, I don’t recall anything in there about discipline. I know discipline’s a by-product of the investigation process but I don’t recall seeing anything specifically about, ‘there has to be a certain type of discipline or a matrix’ or whatever.

As far as I know the Seattle Police Officers Guild is playing by the rules set forward in state law, which governs and sets the rules for bargaining and negotiations with uniform personnel in the state.... Bringing in experts is fine but every jurisdiction has been struggling with this for over 30 years and no one’s got it right. The mayor, it appears the DOJ, and it appears Pete Holmes believes we’ve got it right. And we have to fine-tune it in the next negotiation. But by state law you cannot force another party in the bargaining atmosphere to compel them to reopen a contract. There has to be a specific re-opener agreement and it has to be consensual or mutually agreed to.

Everyone agreed with them [community groups] until this settlement agreement has gone on -- they feel -- too long or too far. And maybe it has. But it is interesting to see that everyone [at the city] who was wanting reform, and rightfully so, now says we are reformed enough. However, the groups [like the ACLU] that originally brought the actions to the attention of the U.S. Attorney -- then Durkan -- is saying, ‘no it’s not exactly what we thought was going to happen or should happen.’”