A primer: the Seattle Police Department (SPD) has a long history of issues, going back decades. Not unlike some other cities, of course—but the resistance to reform here seems to be especially thick, and institutional. Every successive mayor seems to be determined to try it their own way, and none of them by taking on the Seattle Police and their union, the Seattle Police Officers Guild (SPOG), which is one of the most powerful police unions in the nation. It finally reached the point in 2011 that the Department of Justice began the takeover process of the Seattle Police force, as was done previously in Los Angeles and New Orleans.
In that primer link (you really ought to read it), you can see some of SPD’s history, but also the most recent fiasco. Dominic Holden, the editor of a local newspaper, was harassed by an active duty police officer. The journalist’s crime? Being a journalist and asking questions at a crime scene. In response, Holden filed a complaint and documented the process in great detail for the public to see. You can read Holden’s reporting about it (in order) here, here, here, here, and here.
The end result was that the harassing officer was given a one day suspension. That suspension was overturned, apparently under pressure from the police union, under the support of our newly elected Mayor Murray and the current Police Chief. 48 hours later, the Mayor and Chief reversed their decision, after it was covered all the way up to the level of the national news media. Read it about here. This news report here is about the press conference after all of this happened.
Many people don’t understand what our Mayor Murray thought he stood to gain with such apparent strong support for the SPOG people (which is how this all unfortunately reads and plays). It’s already been demonstrated that a Seattle Mayor no longer ever needs their support to win. Mike McGinn, Murray’s predecessor, won his first election explicitly without any SPOG endorsement. Their endorsement is functionally powerless now for elections. For reforms, it’s Federal labor law that we’ll need to pay in the form in raises or other compensation for a lot of the changes that are needed, and there’s nothing to be done for that. It was always going to be cash in hand there as a requirement for real reforms… which is fine, and how the world works.
This all essentially makes no sense and has no political upside for Murray. All his political upside is to champion reforms and to be tough on and with SPOG and SPD. Aside from a very small, overly vocal minority, there seems to be popular support for hammering SPD into a new and more responsible form. There is no other obvious reason for Murray to cater to the vocal minority unless it’s playing the rather pointless “Seattle political process” to include the cranks and crackpots.
Murray stands to gain a lot, probably including a re-election victory in four years — if he were to take on SPD with the anger and frustration that most of his voters feel and put the majority of the electorate above our pointless process and total appeasement of the police union. Would Ed Murray do this, or would the city need to have its hands tied off? It would be an amazing leadership opportunity for him to champion this. To get it encoded into law so that no future Mayor or City Council could trivially undo it all would be a political masterstroke for many Seattle voters, where no mayor has ever been able to rein in the Seattle Police before.
If our elected officials apparently are unwilling to stand up for the residents of the city on something this obvious, what recourse do we have left? Should we wait for the Department of Justice to forcefully take over our police department?
I’m convinced we can’t reform the Seattle Police unless there is a voter-driven ballot measure that specifically bars the City from entering into any contract agreement with SPOG that does not includes provisions for reform, like total public oversight. Successive Mayors and City Councils are either afraid to or unwilling to take on SPD and SPOG. The only solution if it’s legal may be to take away the choice from the City completely.
What should it entail, ideally? These three bullet points would be specific to SPD.
Bar the city from accepting ANY future or modified contracts with any police union unless there is the following:
1. A public head/controller of the SPD, like a Commissioner, who is nominated by the Mayor and renewed every 2 years by the City Council. The City Council should get the authority to remove this person from their position. This person controls and oversees all SPD operations and replaces the Chief as head director. This new position is under the control of the Mayor, and is subject to oversight from the City Council.
2. A public oversight board that is the final arbiter of discipline. 11 positions. 2 selected by the Mayor and approved by the Council. 1 each selected by each Councilmember and approved by the Council. 4-year terms. Can’t have been a member of the union of the group being overseen for at least 10 years. The City Council also would have the authority to remove anyone from this board.
3. Remove the authority from anyone in SPD to “undo” or “revise” discipline, such as the “Chief” or “Commissioner”.
Don’t take items 1-3? Fine. The City is legally barred from signing a new or revised contract then. You can stay under your old one.
If this passed by voters as a ballot measure, can you imagine the immense political backlash any Mayor or City Council would face if they tried to undo it? Can you imagine the political victory any Mayor or City Council that championed this would earn?
The problem with an initiative is cost in running the measure, in terms of legal costs, advertising, collection of signatures, and costs for inevitable legal challenges. SPOG would certainly fight anything both before and after the elections. The city may fight it as well, because the initiative can’t change existing labor agreements and could only restrict what the city itself can do. Some members of the City Council or the Mayor himself may be against giving up some measure of power.
One worry is that a police-only initiative could get challenged on class grounds. A blanket “all city unions” approach could eliminate that risk and probably be an easy sell to voters on their ballots. It could also be inexpensive to add the rest of the unions. Most panels would never be invoked, and most unions may like it because a neutral board rather than the city and management would reconcile any possible discipline if it came up. It would need to affect all labor agreements. “The city may not enter any labor agreement without an oversight and disciplinary panel with the following powers; appointment to that panel comes by x process; members may not be members of the group they oversee for at minimum ten years; decisions of the panels are final and may not be reversed by elected officials of the City of Seattle.”
Then once it’s law, you sit back and wait. The city won’t be able to enter new deals without the provisions with anyone. It becomes a long game to reform, if anyone ever wants a new labor deal or a raise.
It’s also entirely possible the Seattle Police union — or other unions — may support such a law. Why? Look at what just happened to Officer Marion, who had the confrontation with Dominic Holden. You’re suspended, and now you’re not, and now you are. Maybe by Wednesday he’ll be off of suspension again. A system like the one I’ve outlined would add finality to decisions that could not be overturned, but it would also give a tremendous framework of stability to every union. It would largely remove politics from disciplinary decisions.