A federal report released last week laid out the steps Seattle must take to convince the US Department of Justice to stop babysitting the Seattle Police Department as it has for the last 12 years, a goal shared by abolitionists, reformers, and local elected officials alike. 

Those steps include (among other things) giving SPD more money to implement reforms and better defining the roles of the local oversight agencies, all of which the City can do on its own. But the report also listed police accountability policies, such as giving civilians more power over police misconduct investigations, removing rules that impose strict timelines on those investigations, and no longer allowing private arbitration attorneys to overturn the chief of police’s disciplinary decisions. Those reforms sound fun, but to enact them the City will need to beat the recalcitrant police union at the bargaining table in its negotiations over the Seattle Police Officers Guild’s (SPOG) contract, which expired in 2020.

In the report, the federal monitor gave credence to the view that the City could more easily and permanently implement those reforms if the Legislature banned collective bargaining on issues of police accountability. But legislators and labor attorneys disagreed, saying the City just needs to take a harder line with SPOG. 

Everyone in Seattle wants the Feds to go away because the oversight program, which bears the eye-glazing name of "consent decree," has cost the City hundreds of millions of dollars and yet its reforms haven’t met community expectations. Last year, the City once again tried to convince US Federal Judge James Robart to lift the consent decree, but Robart said he would wait until after the City finalized the new SPOG contract and after the monitor released his accountability system assessment. If the new SPOG contract doesn’t bring the department into compliance with the consent decree, then the City could face another four years with a federal babysitter.

Harrell’s spokesperson, Jamie Housen, said the City cannot unilaterally make the changes listed in the monitor’s report because labor negotiations require compromise, which is why a state law could help them make some big changes quickly.

Labor negotiations happen behind closed doors, so we can’t know what SPOG wants in exchange for police accountability reforms. We do know what the City said it planned to push for as of March 2023, when a City labor negotiator outlined priorities, all of which aligned with the goal of coming into compliance with the consent decree. Those priorities included nixing arbitrary investigation timelines, securing unlimited subpoena power for police misconduct investigators, reducing the high level of proof needed to discipline a cop, and making the appeals and arbitration process more transparent. Given the projected budget deficit for next year, the City might struggle to find the money to buy a carrot big enough to entice SPOG to accept these accountability measures, especially given how much the union fought these ideas in the past. 

If the two sides dig in and reach an impasse, the whole contract could go to “interest arbitration,” which could result in a contract with even worse accountability measures. As police observer Amy Sundberg pointed out in an article for the Urbanist, some signs indicate that interest arbitration could go in the City’s favor, especially since the Seattle Police Management Association (cop bosses) already accepted some of these police accountability reforms. However, between the risky unknown consequences of interest arbitration and a surefire state law that would give cities total power over enacting police accountability measures, it makes sense that the City prefers to push for a state law.

That said, Seattle’s current elected officials might not be putting enough pressure on SPOG. At the end of last year, the City agreed to a Memorandum of Understanding with SPOG that increased police funding without requiring any police accountability measures in return. Plus, Council Member Bob Kettle, the new chair of the council’s Public Safety Committee, told FOX 13 that he wants to boost officer morale, and he asked officers thinking about retiring or quitting to give the Council one year to woo them back. Not exactly the picture of someone who wants to play hardball in labor negotiations. 

But state lawmakers also want to avoid taking a political hit from both labor unions and cops. The Legislature tried to ban police unions from bargaining over police accountability in 2021 and in 2022 with Senate Bill 5134, introduced by Senator Jesse Salomon. But the bill never left the Senate labor committee due to substantial opposition from powerful labor unions, including the Teamsters, who represent the UW Police Department. Salomon said he planned to reintroduce his bill this year. 

State Senator Karen Keiser (D-Des Moines), who chairs the labor committee, called the issue a “slippery slope” in regards to stifling labor power. She bristled at the idea of singling out police unions as different from other workers, saying, "solidarity forever.” (Keiser’s point falls flat when you consider that, unlike any other worker, cops have the exclusive power to kill and imprison people, and not putting close guardrails on that power is also a kind of “slippery slope.”) In any event, instead of sliding down her non-existent slippery slope, she argued that Seattle officials could benefit from taking a few classes on “how to do real bargaining.”

While I think the City should risk taking the SPOG contract to interest arbitration if the union continues to oppose police accountability, which they will, it's pretty convenient for state lawmakers to pass the buck. As the federal monitor pointed out in his report, even if the City managed to insert all the accountability measures outlined by the federal monitor into the SPOG contract, that contract would only last four years. If Judge Robart then lifted federal oversight, a different mayor could trade away all of those police accountability measures from the next round of collective bargaining. A new state law, however, would ensure long-lasting accountability measures statewide. But so long as labor union leaders still think cops are workers just like everyone else, then it’ll never happen.