SEATTLE — A federal judge has found that a portion of Seattle’s contract with its biggest police union threatens to undermine public confidence in a seven-year-old reform agreement between the city and the Department of Justice.
U.S. District Judge Robart said Wednesday the city must fix deficiencies in the closed-door appeal process for officers who have been fired or disciplined before it can be released from federal oversight.
While praising the department for its work at improving areas such as use of force, crisis intervention, supervision and search and services, Robart was highly critical of the accountability.
“It’s imperative to deal with these accountability issues,” he said.
His decision emanated from the case of an officer who won back his job after being fired for punching a handcuffed woman.
The Seattle Times reported that the judge’s ruling dealt a blow to Mayor Jenny Durkan and Police Chief Carmen Best, who hailed the contract with the Seattle Police Officers Guild as a key step in the city’s effort to comply with federally mandated reforms.
It was Durkan who, as U.S. Attorney in Seattle, spearheaded the 2012 consent decree with the city that required the Police Department to address allegations that officers engaged in a pattern of excessive force and displayed troubling evidence of biased policing.
Shortly after Durkan was elected mayor in 2017, Robart found in January 2018 that the city had reached “full and effective” compliance with the consent decree, triggering a two-year review period requiring the city to show continuing compliance.
In December, Robart ordered the city of Seattle to explain why it shouldn’t be found out of compliance in light of the announcement of the arbitrator’s decision overturning the firing of the officer who punched the handcuffed woman.
Robart, who has presided over the consent decree since its inception, then expanded his inquiry to include a detailed account of how the “disciplinary system and appeals process” has changed since the department came under federal oversight.
Even before enactment of the Seattle Police Officers Guild contract, the Community Police Commission, a citizen body created as part of the consent decree, had raised concerns, questioning whether the labor agreement contained adequate safeguards against union gaming of the disciplinary-appeal process.
In a February court filing, the commission argued Seattle was backsliding on reform by undermining public trust in the internal disciplinary process.
It urged Robart to direct the city to fix flaws in the agreement with the police union, which represents more than 1,300 officers and sergeants.