Almost two weeks ago, 24 community groups announced that they were urging the Seattle City Council to reject the Seattle Police Officer’s Guild contract recently negotiated by Mayor Jenny Durkan. Those groups included many of the same groups that signed the original letter to the Department of Justice requesting an investigation into the Seattle Police Department over excessive use of force and biased policing. They include El Centro de la Raza, Mothers for Police Accountability, the Public Defender Association, Asian Counseling Service, and the ACLU of Washington State.
This past Tuesday, the city council ignored that advice and passed the police union contract on a vote of 8-1, with only Councilmember Kshama Sawant voting against it.
Sawant gave a persuasive argument for opposing the contract. She cited the 35 union leaders and activists who had urged the council to vote against the contract. She mentioned the 24 community groups who had done the same, as well as the Community Police Commission—the civilian advisory group set up by the court to advise the city on police reform—who also called for the council to reject the contract.
In addition, Sawant said that she supported the wage increases in the contract, and would like to see similar wage increases for other city workers. But the contract would roll back reforms that were included in the police reform legislation passed by the city council earlier this year. And in Sawant’s view, that reform law didn’t go far enough.
What Sawant didn’t mention is that salary increases for Seattle police officers are already included in the city’s 2018-2019 budget. This means that the city council could have voted against the contract on Tuesday, then voted on Wednesday to keep the salary raises in the budget, thereby signaling the mayor to sit down and renegotiate the reform piece of the contract (while the salary piece was already affirmed).
Instead, the council passed the entire contract. Two councilmembers posted their reasons on the city blog. Councilmember Lorena Gonzalez, who chairs the council’s public safety committee, listed the reforms in the contract that she supported, while admitting that the contract would roll back other important reforms, which she didn’t list (naturally). In October, after the Community Police Commission recommended that the council reject the contract, Gonzalez responded by stating her unequivocal support for the contract without addressing any of the issues brought up by the CPC. Gonzalez, who is always quick to brag about her background as a civil rights attorney and woman of color, has yet to make any direct mention of the concerns voiced by community members over the police union contract.
City Council President Bruce Harrell, who is also the Chair of the Labor Relations and Policy Committee, gave the justification that the city was avoiding a “likely prolonged legal battle.” In part, this is a reference to the lawsuit filed by the Seattle Police Officer’s Guild when the previous mayor, Ed Murray, issued an executive order last year for all Seattle police to wear body cameras. The guild contends that this is an unfair labor practice, and that all features of the police reform process must be made part of a negotiated labor contract between the union and the city. Harrell clearly agrees with this reasoning, even though Judge James Robart, who is overseeing the reform process, doesn’t. Robart has made it clear that he won’t allow the police union to hold the city hostage—in other words, demand extra money in order to do their jobs under the U.S. Constitution.
Judge Robart has expressed skepticism that the police union contract meets the requirements of the reform process. In particular, he cited one provision of the contract: a wage increase in exchange for the requirement that police wear body cameras, after which the union will drop the lawsuit. This is the very provision that Harrell has bragged about, and yet it’s a portion of the contract that Judge Robart finds particularly troubling, because it implies a trading of favors: extra money in exchange for officers doing their job under the law and ending harassment of the city.
Seattle residents should find this contract and the city council’s lack of concern deeply troubling, too, because it provides strong evidence that the police union runs the city government (and not the other way around). The city council could’ve exercised their duty to oversee the police department. They are, after all, the representatives elected by the people of Seattle to govern in our best interest and to provide a check on the mayor and city departments. Instead, the council caved into the police union’s demands, passed a flawed contract, and then threw that contract over to Judge Robart to decide the Constitutionality of it.