City police union likened to 'jackbooted thugs'

After a year marked by controversy over the discipline of Seattle police officers, the city and its police union appear to be on a collision course over possible changes in the way the Police Department handles allegations of officer misconduct.

Who prevails could shape for years to come how the city's police officers are held accountable.

An expert panel appointed by Mayor Greg Nickels is expected to release recommendations by the end of the month for improving the disciplinary system. The police union and city officials have spent the past several months staking out ground over how far changes can go.

City officials say too much power has been ceded to the Seattle Police Officers' Guild over the years and that the expert panel's work could provide a chance to alter that. "I think this will be a defining moment for police accountability in terms of what has to be bargained and what is a management right," said Deputy Mayor Tim Ceis, arguing that not all changes need union approval.

Guild President Rich O'Neill contends that anything other than small "tweaks" to the disciplinary system must be bargained with the union.

2 incidents spur action

Nickels formed the expert panel in June after Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske exonerated two officers accused of using excessive force in a controversial downtown arrest, spurring an outcry from a police-review board and community activists.

Kerlikowske also had come under fire for not disciplining officers who had beaten an African-American man outside a Capitol Hill bar.

In response to the two incidents, the Seattle City Council also formed its own panel to examine police culture.

The Guild has officially supported the scrutiny but complained that the issue has been blown out of proportion.

Seattle cops "are tired of being tarred as a bunch of jackbooted thugs," especially since so few cases rise to the level of serious misconduct, said Chris Vick, an attorney who represents the Guild and 30 other police unions across the state.

Complaints have been lodged against only 13 percent of officers in recent years — a number consistent with national patterns, O'Neill said. Roughly one in eight of those complaints resulted in sustained findings of misconduct.

"We have a squeaky clean Police Department compared to other big cities," O'Neill said. "Some of the things our [internal-investigation unit] investigates would be met with a dial tone if you called another big-city department."

Critics contend that the issue is not the degree of misconduct but the need for the Police Department to be more open about how and when it disciplines officers.

O'Neill insists the city's first priority should be dealing with growing resentment among officers who have been working under an expired contract for more than a year. Consequently, the Guild doesn't want to talk about significant changes regarding discipline until the next round of contract talks in 2010.

Recently, the union has been flexing more political muscle: It purchased bus ads in November to publicize officers' complaints about low pay and demanding working conditions. For the first time this past fall, it financially supported political candidates, and two of three City Council candidates it endorsed won in November's election.

"We want to hold politicians accountable for the decisions they make ... because Lord knows they want to hold police accountable," O'Neill said.

Lower pay in Seattle

Over the years, the Guild has remained a tight-knit organization because of two overriding beliefs: that the city doesn't keep its word and that officers have been held to impossible standards while seeing their working conditions worsen.

Pay is lower in Seattle than in similarly sized West Coast departments, and Seattle police are having a tough time recruiting new officers.

O'Neill is "unapologetically protective" of the union contract and officers' rights and said "it's absurd, the idea the city has given up anything" in the way of political power.

If anything, the Guild's been forced to take an aggressive stance since Seattle is a frequent violator of police contracts, said Vick, the Guild attorney. And it's why the Guild has repeatedly appealed police management decisions to the state labor board, he said.

Between 1999 and last August, the Guild, with 1,181 members, had filed 44 unfair-labor-practice complaints with the Public Employment Relations Commission By comparison, the King County Police Officers Guild, which represents about 550 members, has filed 12.

The Seattle Guild's challenges ranged from fighting the shift of water-rescue work to firefighters to smaller workplace matters, such as an allegation that a commander made a derogatory remark about the union during a meeting.

The Guild filed another complaint this month, arguing that Seattle cops should police the city-owned South Lake Union Streetcar instead of sheriff's deputies, who are responsible for the county-owned Metro transit system.

Guild members in May 2000 voted down the first contract that included civilian oversight, ratifying it only after the city sweetened its salary offer. Even then, it took more than a year before the civilian-led Office of Professional Accountability (OPA) was up and running.

Before that, the Guild had a history of opposing changes in the department. 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.

And the union opposed the appointment of a "citizen observer" in reviews of officer-involved shootings, saying police investigators were best trained to deal with such issues.

More recently, the Guild negotiated an unusual provision in its contract that requires the city to look for any legal exemption to the state public-disclosure law when releasing information about officers. That provision has left police officials with little leeway, but the Guild contends it protects officer privacy.

"Pro-union culture"

Sam Walker, a national expert on police discipline, said the history of Seattle's police union shows that its relationship with the city is out of whack.

"There's the sense the union is running the department, rather than [police] management or the mayor," said Walker, a professor emeritus at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

The Guild seems to believe "everything is a bargainable issue," and as a result, Seattle's leaders have become "far too deferential" to the Guild, he said. "It's this very pro-union culture and when the union barks, people salute and that shouldn't be."

Councilmember Nick Licata — who spearheaded the creation of the council's review panel — agrees the city has been too risk-averse in battling the Guild. He singled out Nickels for not being "engaged" in changing police culture.

"I think he's taken a look at the alignment of political forces and determined it's not worth the effort to tick [the Guild] off," Licata said.

Ceis, the deputy mayor, disputed that view, saying Nickels has "tended to take a harder line with the Guild." Previous administrations gave up on issues they shouldn't have, Ceis said. Moreover, once something is set into a union contract, "it's very hard to get one party to give it up," he said.

Ceis said Nickels "wants to make sure there is no more slippage."

The chief's stance

Kerlikowske has said he is open to changes but defended his record.

"I don't know of another police department in the country that even comes close" to the amount of civilian scrutiny built into Seattle's system, the chief said.

Kerlikowske has been criticized over the past several years for reversing some disciplinary recommendations made by the OPA's director without fully explaining his reasons.

But Mark McCarty, the department attorney who closely works with the chief in handling discipline cases, said Kerlikowske must try to be consistent and, at the same time, avoid losing arbitrations that could tie the department's hands in future cases.

"They are an aggressive and assertive union," McCarty said. "They are very protective of their members."

While the department recognizes the Guild's influence, that doesn't mean Kerlikowske has given in, McCarty said.

The citizen board that reviews police-discipline cases believes Kerlikowske needs to do more. It first asked in 2005 for the chief to put in writing his reasons for changing recommended discipline. It was that board that last spring questioned the chief's exoneration of two officers' conduct in a drug dealer's arrest in downtown Seattle.

The 2 controversial cases

Last January, George "Troy" Patterson alleged that two officers roughed him up and planted drugs on him. Discrepancies between a video of the arrest and the officers' police report later called the credibility of the officers into question. In March, prosecutors dismissed charges against Patterson and said as many as 17 other cases involving the officers could be affected because of the credibility issues.

Kerlikowske exonerated the officers of the most serious allegations of misconduct. The chief, who promised the officers a fast-track decision because they'd been publicly accused, delivered his exoneration at a news conference in April, 10 days after the first news stories about the controversial arrest were published.

The Guild commended the chief's swift action. But the citizen review board and the NAACP criticized the chief and suggested he had interfered with the investigation.

The second case that prompted the mayor's review was resolved in November when the city agreed to pay $185,000 to an African-American man beaten by police officers outside a Capitol Hill nightclub in April 2005.

Council ordinances

The City Council has already plowed ahead with changes to police discipline, passing two ordinances on the subject. One gives the citizen review board greater access to police disciplinary records. The other requires the chief to provide written explanation when he disagrees with OPA disciplinary recommendations, or when he doesn't take action within a required 180-day window.

The Guild is fighting both changes and has already filed an unfair-labor-practice complaint over the ordinance on access to records.

Both sides are awaiting a ruling by the state Public Employment Relations Commission on that complaint. The outcome is expected to play a key role in determining the balance of power between the city and the Guild, as well as provide guidance to the city in altering disciplinary procedures.

Meanwhile, the Guild, under the leadership of O'Neill and Vice President Roger Dixon, is trying to increase pressure on the city — both to resolve the stalled contract talks and to bargain any discipline changes.

Officers are asking citizens "to pick up the phone and call the mayor" to push for a new contract, O'Neill said. And because police can't strike, officers are talking about staging informational pickets.

"Can you imagine 200 cops, circling City Hall?" O'Neill said.


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