As negotiations with city loom, Seattle’s police union has had an outsized influence on police accountability measures

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As negotiations with city loom, Seattle’s police union has had an outsized influence on police accountability measures

After years of fighting reforms, defending problem officers and ignoring or attacking its critics — all while winning big raises for its members — the Seattle Police Officer’s Guild (SPOG) can claim few powerful friends or allies heading into critical contract negotiations with the city, with the fate of federal oversight of the Seattle Police Department hanging in the balance.

City officials and agencies who have traditionally tolerated SPOG, even supported it, have distanced themselves over a summer of police violence and racial reckoning following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. Even some other King County labor unions have had enough, a majority voting to expel the guild from the MLK Labor Council in June — a nationally unprecedented rebuke after the labor council said SPOG failed to acknowledge its role in institutional racism.

Throughout it all, SPOG and its roughly 1,300 members — composed of sworn officers and sergeants — have remained resistant to change, or at least resistant to change that doesn’t come with a check. It has responded to sharp public criticism over the indiscriminate use of crowd control weapons during this past summer’s Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests by going on the offensive. The guild’s new president, Mike Solan, a 13-year SPD veteran and SWAT team member, promises to “recapture the narrative” from the liberal left and has come under fire for promoting right-wing conspiracy theories.

Now, heading into what may be the most important contract talks in the guild’s 69-year history, some city officials question whether Solan is capable of bargaining in good faith. Moreover, questions are being raised here, and in other major cities across the country, about the immense power police unions have accumulated and how it’s been used to avoid accountability.

Pushback on reforms

In Seattle, the guild has negotiated a string of contracts in recent years that have made SPD officers the highest paid in the state, SPOG having horse-traded reforms called for in a 2012 consent decree between the Justice Department and the city for increased wages and benefits. These moves have led the federal judge overseeing the decree to warn that constitutional policing will not be held hostage to union negotiations.

SPOG has given ground grudgingly. It took the discovery in 1999 of the theft by a detective of $10,000 from the apartment of a man killed by officers to force the union to accept civilian oversight. SPOG and its leaders have fought almost every other attempt to make officers more accountable, and stood to defend every officer involved in a controversial use of force or questionable behavior.

Over two decades it fought various measures, including the licensing of handgun owners and the mandatory use of bulletproof vests, saying it should be up to officers whether to wear the body armor.

The Guild also fought efforts to boost the number of minority and female officers, saying the best candidates need to be hired, regardless of race or gender. It resisted diversity training for officers, arguing that it would give the impression officers were insensitive to racial and sexual minorities.

In recent years, it actively lobbied against I-940, the statewide police reform initiative that changed the legal standard to charge a police officer with improper use of deadly force. The guild donated more than $100,000 to fight the measure, which passed with 60% of the vote statewide, and nearly 70% in King County. Solan, the guild’s president, argued the law would “make it easier” to charge police for political reasons.

SPOG also has actively campaigned against measures in Olympia this year that would amend labor law and arbitration procedures, which are seen as major impediments by the city to enforce officer discipline. Over the years, it has also filed a string of Unfair Labor Practice complaints protesting efforts to implement policies.

In the most recent, filed in December, the guild says officers are being placed in danger by the city’s proposed ban of certain crowd-control weapons — blast balls and tear gas in particular — and that officers should be able to use neck restraints that are barred by city policy.

Stephen Rushin, who teaches criminal law and police accountability at Loyola University Chicago’s School of Law, reviewed labor contracts from 178 law enforcement agencies, including SPD, in an article published in February 2019 in the University of Pennsylvania Law Review. He found “problematic provisions” that often “insulate front-line officers from accountability and oversight.”

For example, Rushin wrote in an article published in 2017 in the Duke Law Journal that a “Police Officer’s Bill of Rights” contained in the Seattle contract can delay interviews with officers accused of wrongdoing, limit the consideration of prior disciplinary history, limit the length of internal investigations and — significantly — allowed disciplinary decisions to be sent to arbitration, where punishment is often reduced. The contract also raises the burden of proof for the chief, making a disciplinary finding more difficult in cases of alleged serious misconduct.

Rushin found that 88% of the 178 police contracts he reviewed contained at least one of seven provisions he determined to be an impediment to accountability. Seattle’s contained four.

Indeed, one key reason SPD is entering its ninth year under a federal consent-decree negotiated by the U.S. Department of Justice is because U.S. District Judge James Robart, who is overseeing reforms mandated by the document, was troubled by the 2018 forced rehiring of Officer Adley Shepherd, who had been fired by then-Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole two years after he punched an intoxicated and handcuffed young woman in the face, fracturing bones.

Shepherd had appealed under provisions in the contract to a review board, which overturned the chief and ordered Shepherd reinstated. His discipline was reduced from termination to 15 days off without pay. Many members of the public and city officials were outraged.

However, Robart noted in an order that Shepherd’s rehiring occurred because the city had bargained away substantial reforms of the discipline and appeals process that had been included in a much touted Accountability Ordinance passed by the council in 2017. That contract had been supported by Mayor Jenny Durkan, the City Council and the MLK Labor Council over the objection of the Community Police Commission and others who warned it would undermine reform efforts.

The judge, citing the guild’s history of defiance in the face of reform and the city’s willingness to bargain away hard-earned accountability reforms, found in May 2019 the city had fallen out of compliance with the consent decree, where it remains today.

The city eventually had to go to court to uphold Shepherd’s termination.

Rushin, the Chicago law professor, recently completed research into arbitration awards, published last year in the Vanderbilt Law Review, that uses Adley Shepherd as a case example. He reviewed 624 arbitration awards in police disciplinary appeals between 2007 and 2020 from a variety of departments nationwide, finding that an arbitrator reduced or overturned officer discipline more than half the time. In 46% of those cases, the arbitrator ordered a department to rehire an officer who had been fired.

Durkan, who has been at the forefront of police reform in Seattle for more than 20 years, and who as U.S. Attorney spearheaded the Justice Department civil-rights investigation that led to the consent decree, believes some of these issues shouldn’t be up for negotiation. Officers deserve due process, Durkan said. However, when it comes to discipline, she believes a chief’s decision on who should be trusted to carry a gun and badge should be final.

“Adley Shepherd never should have happened,” Durkan said.

A hard-line leader

Even before a year of protests and calls to defund the police, Mike Solan was ready for a fight: In a campaign video the 47-year-old Solan made when he ran for guild president last year, months before the summer’s unrest, he vowed to stand up to the “anti-police activist agenda that is driving Seattle politics.” Solan argues that police “are being held to an unreasonable standards and the scrutiny is immense.”

Solan has been contemptuous of efforts to defund the department, has repeatedly lashed the mayor and City Council, and has publicly embraced false conspiracies claiming BLM and antifa had a role in the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. Wide-ranging calls for an apology or his resignation were met with jut-jawed defiance.

City Attorney Pete Holmes is among the city officials who question Solan’s leadership, calling his comments implying the “far left” was responsible for violence during the attack on the Capitol “despicable.”

“What he’s saying is that the FBI is wrong,” Holmes said. “The fact that he spends more time enhancing conspiracy theories than mourning the death of police officers who died that day is a problem.”

SPOG publicly condemned the death of George Floyd, issuing a public letter vowing to “repair any trust lost by holding ourselves to the highest possible standard in a transparent way.”

However, two days later — following a weekend of downtown confrontations in which hundreds of non-violent protesters were tear-gassed — the union told Durkan that the situation was “untenable” and that inaction would result in more injuries to officers and the public.

Over the course of the summer, dozens of police officers suffered injuries during the protests, often from thrown objects ranging from canned food and frozen water bottles to large fireworks.

Solan declined to be interviewed for this story, conditioning an interview with a reporter from The Seattle Times with an appearance by the reporter on Solan’s weekly podcast, Hold The Line, where his guests have included alt-right social media personality and propagandist Andy Ngo.

Given widespread calls for police reforms, Solan’s declarations might prove challenging for the union — both in contract negotiations with the city and on the state and national level, where there is momentum to address police labor contracts.

In June, the MLK Labor Council — the central body of labor organizations in King County — cut ties with SPOG.

“Any union that is part of our labor council needs to be actively working to dismantle racism in their institution and society at large,” wrote MLK Labor Executive Secretary-Treasurer Nicole Grant in a letter memorializing the vote. “Unfortunately, the Seattle Police Officers Guild has failed to do that work and are no longer welcome in our council.”

Anne Levinson, a former judge who served as oversight auditor for the department from 2010 to 2016, reviewing disciplinary cases, has a dark view of future reforms, believing the mayor and council “squandered a golden opportunity” during the last contract negotiation, when she said the city was “asleep at the wheel” as SPOG gutted the accountability ordinance in negotiations.

Levinson and others believe that missed opportunity was available at all only because of past SPOG President Ron Smith, who several city officials have praised for being willing to compromise and see what Levinson calls “enlightened self interest” — realizing that the reforms would benefit the public and make better police officers in the long run.

Smith was sharply criticized by the rank and file and past SPOG leaders for cooperating with the police chief and was ousted in 2016, after two years. Relations with the city deteriorated since.

Smith was replaced by increasingly hard-line leaders, including Solan, who have hewed close to the every-reform-comes-with-a-price negotiation position of the architect of the 2017 labor contract, now retired Sgt. Rich O’Neill.

Merrick Bobb served as the court-appointed monitor for the consent decree from its outset until last year. His assessment of SPOG and its leaders is colorful and blunt.

“Using blinders like a horse, being more stubborn than a mule, and acting more of an ass than the same-named animal, SPOG’s leadership since 2012 has invariably failed to assess the advantages of the consent decree for the rank-and-file police officer,” Bobb said in an email. “Neither has it calculated the benefits — dollar-wise and otherwise — which would accompany labor peace.”

Headed for negotiation

The most recent contract between SPOG and the city expired Dec. 31. As of late February, the two sides had yet to formally meet. The talks are likely to be difficult — SPOG and its sister union, the Seattle Police Managers Association (representing lieutenants and captains) have filed a pair of Unfair Labor Practice complaints against the city for its effort to ban the use of crowd-control weapons, saying those actions place officers’ lives in danger, are related to work conditions, and should be included in collective bargaining.

This year, Durkan and her administration, along with civilian and civil-rights reformers, have turned to Olympia, where they believe amending state labor law is the path around obstructions thrown up by the guild and other police and sheriff’s unions.

Opposition by the greater labor community has apparently doomed any attempt to do away with or limit arbitration altogether, however a Senate bill that creates a special panel of independent arbitrators to hear law-enforcement disciplinary cases passed the Senate with bipartisan support.

In past negotiations, SPOG has used elements of reform called for in the consent decree as bargaining leverage — a tactic that has prompted Robart, the federal judge overseeing the agreement, to warn during the last contract negotiations that the “citizens of Seattle are not going to pay blackmail for constitutional policing.”

City Attorney Pete Holmes, whose office represents the city in negotiations, says SPOG “is without a doubt the most transactional union we deal with. Everything is a bargaining chip. A lofty goal like constitutional policing? It’s, ‘How much money?’”

An example: Holmes said that in 2008, before federal oversight and after two years without a contract, SPOG negotiated raises amounting to nearly 25% over three years, makings its officers the highest paid in the state. The exchange? The guild dropped opposition to a series of 29 accountability reforms recommended by a citizen’s committee. Those reforms were in place when the DOJ came calling three years later.

Many of these same issues — arbitration, particularly, but also new ordinances that prohibit SPD officers from using neck restraints and a City Council ban on crowd-control weapons — will be on the bargaining table when talks eventually begin. Negotiations dragged out 3 1/2 years last time.

SPOG and its members have questioned the validity of the DOJ investigation that led to the consent decree, and have opposed most of its reforms, including the use of body cameras, revised use-of-force policies, civilian oversight and any change to the rules surrounding arbitration.

Still, not every finger is pointed at SPOG when it comes to why the department hasn’t been able to adopt all of the consent decree reforms, which initially were expected to take between three and five years to implement.

“A good part of the problem has been lack of leadership from elected officials and the command staff of the department,” said Pierce Murphy, who served as the civilian director of the Office of Police Accountability from 2013 to 2017. “The guild has stepped into that vacuum of leadership.”

Murphy and others believe the city has bargained away important management rights and responsibilities and then ceded work toward officer accountability to the Community Police Commission, which has little actual authority, although this year both the CPC and the City Council will have representatives in the contract negotiations, as will the OPA.

None of this is to say that the SPD hasn’t improved under the consent decree. The city now boasts one of the most comprehensive use-of-force policies in the country and has implemented extensive de-escalation and crisis management training that has sharply reduced incidents where officers use force.

Still, reforms need to go further, said Levinson, the former oversight auditor.

“The bottom line is that, while police deserve to have a right to collectively bargain their wages and working conditions, they are different from other public employees,” she said. “Water and sewer workers can’t force their way into your home, take your freedom, or take your life.”