Washington Senate passes police arbitration bill

By Gene Johnson / Associated Press

SEATTLE — The Washington state Senate has overwhelmingly passed a bill to create a panel of arbitrators to review police discipline decisions and to better track law enforcement arbitration cases statewide.

The measure is part of an ambitious package of police reform legislation that lawmakers are considering this session following Black Lives Matter protests that erupted in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Substitute Senate Bill 5055, sponsored by West Seattle Democratic Sen. Joe Nguyen and approved on a bipartisan 41-8 vote Thursday, would create a roster of nine to 18 arbitrators to hear officers’ appeals when they are disciplined by their departments. It was modeled on a similar measure in Minnesota.

Critics have long argued that because departments and officers typically must agree on an arbitrator, arbitrators have an incentive to sometimes side with the officers: to show they can be “fair” and thus continue being hired in future cases.

Under the bill, arbitrators from the roster would be assigned in alphabetical order to review cases. They would be appointed by the Public Relations Employment Commission, and they would have to meet certain qualifications including at least six years of experience as an arbitrator or labor relations advocate.

Those appointed would have to complete six hours of training in implicit bias and anti-racism training, and six hours of training related to daily law enforcement experience, such as by going on a ride-along or participating in interactive firearms training.

Collective bargaining agreements involving police unions would have to use arbitrators from the roster to the extent they allow arbitration at all.

Because arbitration would be handled by a centralized panel under the bill, supporters say, it will allow the state to comprehensively track such cases.

Nguyen said the measure would help build trust, accountability and transparency in the arbitration system. It was supported by several mayors, including Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan, and other officials frustrated at seeing arbitrators overturn decisions to punish officers for misconduct.

“By improving our policies one by one, we can make a difference and offer hope to a community that is in need of healing,” Nguyen said Wednesday.

In a news release earlier this year, Durkan noted that since 2015 in Seattle, there have more than 530 discipline cases, with 18 officers fired and 515 facing lesser discipline such as suspension, demotion, reprimands or additional training. The Seattle Police Officer’s Guild appealed 93 times.

The Washington House has already passed a few police reform measures this session, including one that would update policies and training about reporting and disclosing information that could impeach an officer’s credibility at trial; one that allows the state auditor to review deadly force investigations to ensure procedures were followed; and one to encourage more diversity in police hiring.

Other measures could face a tougher road to passage, including a police tactics bill in the House that would prohibit or limit the use of chokeholds and neck restraints by officers, the use of police dogs to make arrests, and no-knock warrants.

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