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Seattle cops get big raises in new union contract

caption: A badge on the arm of a Seattle police officer.
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A badge on the arm of a Seattle police officer.
Seattle Police Department / Facebook

The Seattle City Council on Tuesday overwhelmingly approved a long-awaited contract for rank-and-file police.

The contract hikes wages 23% for members of the Seattle Police Officers Guild, making the city's cops some of the highest-paid in the region.

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"We have been losing officers to neighboring jurisdictions, and part of that is because wages have not kept up with neighboring jurisdictions," said Council President Sara Nelson.

Councilmembers voted 8-1 on the measure, despite several of them voicing concerns about the contract. They also heard pushback from members of the public who testified at City Hall Tuesday, including Castill Hightower, whose brother was killed by Seattle Police in 2004.

Hightower accused councilmembers of "over-inflating the police budget at the expense of critical community programs." She said that passing the new contract would "punish" families and victims of police violence.

"The community deserves better," said Hightower, who advocates for funding to assist family members of people killed by police.

Critics of the contract have been saying for weeks that it lacks substantial reform and accountability measures.

"There are several accountability flaws in this contract," said Councilmember Tammy Morales (District 2), the lone vote against the measure.

Morales sought unsuccessfully to delay Tuesday's vote and allow more time "to give folks a chance to understand the contract and what’s in it."

The new document contains some changes to the disciplinary process. It strengthens the police chief’s determinations in misconduct cases, specifying that when those decisions are appealed, the arbitrator overseeing the case will defer to the chief's judgement. Previous contracts did not require the arbitrator to follow the chief's findings.

The contract also adds two more investigators to the Office of Police Accountability, a civilian-led organization within the police department that probes misconduct cases.

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But the new contract denies subpoena power to those investigators if case records are not provided voluntarily. That subpoena power was identified by the city’s labor negotiator as a priority of city government and accountability partners like the Office of Inspector General.

Some councilmembers who voted to approve the measure did so despite expressing doubts.

"This is an imperfect contract," said Councilmember Rob Saka (District 1).

The city spent years negotiating this contract with the police union. An early version of the document leaked online in early April, more than three weeks before Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell submitted the document to the City Council for consideration.

The measure passed by the City Council on Tuesday is retroactive, applying wage increases back to 2021. City police haven't had a raise since their previous contract expired at the end of 2020.

Mayor Harrell has said he hopes the pay hikes will help the city improve police retention and recruitment. The Seattle Police Department has lost hundreds of officers in the past several years, and hiring has failed to keep up with attrition. Harrell and a majority of the City Council have made police staffing a priority.

The new agreement is partial. It applies only to the first three years of a four-year requirement. Meaning the city and union will need to return to the bargaining table to wrap up negotiations for 2024.

"The city is going to continue negotiations as soon as this is finalized, and it’s important to address accountability and wages," said Councilmember Maritza Rivera (District 4).

The mayor has previously said this next round of negotiations will tackle more accountability measures.

Guild President Mike Solan celebrated the partial contract on X (formerly Twitter).

"This vote illustrates the positive sea change in the governance of our great city," Solan wrote. "SPOG admires Mayor Harrell’s and President Nelson’s leadership and commitment to public safety. We look forward to continuing contract negotiations with the city and building back our agency."

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The partial contract approved Tuesday comes at a time when the Justice Department's oversight of Seattle Police is winding down. The city has been under a consent decree for more than a decade, after a federal investigation found Seattle Police had engaged in a pattern of unconstitutional excessive force.

U.S. District Judge James Robart, who oversees the consent decree, will be reviewing the new police union contract. He was critical of transparency and accountability measures in the department's previous contract — namely that it failed to implement a 2017 ordinance passed by the city that would have made it easier to fire an officer for lying, among other reforms.

RELATED: After 11 years, Seattle's federal consent decree reaches the 'end of the beginning'

"In my view, contracts should relate to wages, hours, benefits, and working conditions," Robart said at the time. "They should not shelter officers from city ordinances."

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