The case the media reported on last week, Seattle police officer fired after investigation found he repeatedly made derogatory and discriminatory remarks, regarding the firing of an SPD officer after an investigation by the independent Office of Police Accountability (OPA), involved an officer who had also been investigated by OPA in 2017.
These investigations highlight one of the critical barriers to accountability that continues to be embedded in the City’s police contracts.
OPA believed this same officer had been untruthful during a 2017 investigation. However, after it concluded its investigation, OPA changed its finding from “sustained” to “inconclusive,” no longer finding this officer had violated SPD’s truthfulness policy, because of a higher evidentiary burden that was embedded in the police contract. That means this officer was able to continue on the job for several more years until the second OPA investigation.
How Seattle protects police officers who lie
The CPC, the community, and other police accountability groups have identified this as a problem for years. In 2017, we helped pass the historic Police Accountability Law to address issues like this, but the problem still has not been fixed. That’s because most recent Seattle Police Officer’s Guild (SPOG) contract rolled back many of those reforms and continues to protect officers who lie.
Instead of negotiating for a fair and uniform standard of proof for all misconduct, the City agreed to a higher, undefined “elevated standard of review” in the contract for all misconduct where the officer can be fired and the allegation would be “stigmatizing” to the officer making it more difficult for them to get a job with another police department.
That means, unlike most police departments that use fair and consistent standards for proving dishonesty (preponderance of the evidence), Seattle makes it more difficult to hold officers accountable for the most serious types of misconduct – including lying during disciplinary interviews.
The SPOG contract also contains other loopholes to accountability, like saying investigators must prove the officers was being “intentionally” dishonest instead of using objective standards.
These are major barriers to accountability. It was a big reason the CPC stood with dozens of community groups calling on the City to reject the SPOG contract.
How we can fix Seattle’s police contracts
Fighting for police accountability in court
The Federal Court overseeing the Consent Decree has taken notice. After the SPOG contract was passed, Judge James Robart ordered Seattle and the Department of Justice (DOJ) to explain how the police contracts affected landmark 2017 Accountability Law and how that impacted the Consent Decree.
The City, DOJ, and CPC all filed briefs. The CPC was alone in arguing Seattle’s police contract were contrary to the goals of the Consent Decree to build public trust and confidence. The CPC explained the new, undefined “elevated” standard was an unacceptable barrier to police accountability. The Court agreed, finding the City out of compliance with the Consent Decree regarding accountability.
The legal fight to get the City to comply with the court’s order to do the necessary work with the CPC and other partners to fix the weaknesses in Seattle’s accountability system is still underway.
Police accountability in upcoming contract negotiations
Meanwhile, the negotiations on the next round of police contracts are set to begin. The issues involving dishonesty and other police accountability weaknesses have again been brought to the forefront by the CPC, OPA, the Office of the Inspector General, and the community.
The inability to sustain the finding of dishonesty in this most recent case is just the kind of barrier to accountability in the City’s police contracts that the CPC and the community have repeatedly raised red flags about. It’s why the CPC fought so hard for the accountability law and why the Federal Court agreed with the CPC that the City has to fix these contracts to restore community trust.
The first step to doing that, and one that can be taken today, is for the City to appoint an external advisor with accountability expertise to help them negotiate the contract. That advisor should be jointly recommended by the OPA, OIG, and CPC to assist the City in bargaining and navigating the impacts of any proposed contract changes.
The City has full authority to make this appoint. To build community trust, the advisor should participate with the Labor Relations Policy Committee during development of bargaining agendas, during the bargaining process, and in any re-opener discussions, and be tasked with reporting out to the community after the conclusion of bargaining on the process, to the extent possible considering confidentiality limitations.
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