Seattle: ACLU Urges Greater Police Accountability

News Release: 
Friday, November 7, 2003

Testimony of Julya Hampton, Legal Program Director, American Civil Liberties Union of Washington

Before the Seattle City Council Committee on Fire, Courts and Technology

November 18, 2003

Public Hearing on Police Accountability and the Collective Bargaining Process

I would like to thank members of the City Council for the opportunity to present ACLU’s wish list on police accountability.  From the vantage point of almost two decades of observation, and countless meetings with local officials and their staff, the single most important overriding message I would like to leave with you is the following: “stop the giveaways.”  By this I mean, the City should stop giving away in the collective bargaining process the public’s ability to establish a stronger and more effective police accountability system.

The ACLU for years has questioned the City’s penchant for giving the police officers’ union too much control of the police department’s disciplinary system, and extraordinary control of accountability mechanisms in particular.  The tendency of City officials to engage in unwarranted giveaways is particularly troublesome when the concessions involve accountability proposals that are not subject to mandatory bargaining.  These nonmandatory issues should not be incorporated into the labor talks because doing so ensures they will become hostage to the cumbersome collective bargaining process.  A mandatory subject includes proposals that would change working conditions – such as whether an officer can only be fired “for cause,” or the subject of wages or hours.  Some examples of nonmandatory subjects include:

  1. Early warning system (EWS).  Considered a basic nondisciplinary risk management tool for preventing police misconduct, Seattle still has not implemented an early warning system.  The issue has been tied up in labor negotiations for the last two contract periods.
  2. Timing of officer interviews.  We recommend that officers who are the subject of a complaint should be interviewed prior to their review of the complaint.  The current contract bars the interview of officers until after they have the chance to review the classification report.  This allows the officer to narrowly tailor his or her response, rather than giving a spontaneous account that is closer in time to the incident, when memories are fresher.  It also unfairly skews the investigatory process in favor of the officer. 
  3. The recommendations of the Racial Profiling Task Force regarding data collection should be implemented.  As with the timing of interviews, data collection seeks to provide truthful information about how the police function so that if there is a problem, it can be identified and addressed.  The City, however, has agreed to submit to bargaining any proposal to collect data on the race, ethnicity and gender of complainants and officers.  Like the early warning system, this issue will likely be tied up in negotiations for years.
  4. Reorganization of Seattle’s tripartite police accountability structure should be considered.  The systems currently in place are not the result of open public discourse; instead, they reflect the chaos and compromise that characterize the collective bargaining process.  A disorganized and redundant accountability system is what you would expect to get when deals are worked out behind closed doors.  Effective citizen oversight requires vigorous public debate and the willingness of city officials to stand by the proposals they vote into law.

Instead of protecting the public’s interest in police accountability, City officials have given the union too much control of this debate.  The resulting consequences unfairly burden the public process for change.  A classic illustration of this problem is the fact that we are still waiting for a final version of the police department’s policy and procedures manual chapter regarding internal investigation procedures.  Every word in the chapter is subject to review by the Guild.  This example shows the absurd level of control of minutiae that the City has given away to the Guild.

In fact, nationally recognized police accountability expert Professor Sam Walker of the University of Nebraska has stated that Seattle is the ONLY city where the union presumes such issues are negotiable and the City agrees.

It will not be enough for the City to just take out of the bargaining context the issues that never should have been included in the first place.  The City has the duty to advocate for contract provisions that will promote the public’s interest in stronger accountability.  For example:

  1. Expand the time OPA has to review complaints prior to notifying officers that an investigation will be conducted, and lengthen the time allowed to complete such investigations (OPA, July 2001 recommendation).  Currently OPA must notify officers within five days after receiving a complaint if it is going to conduct an investigation.  Making the OPA hurry this decision makes it more likely that serious misconduct allegations will not be investigated.  This doesn’t serve truth seeking or accountability.
  2. Increase the “statute of limitations” on investigations beyond the current 180 days (six months).  The “blue curtain of silence” can operate to delay disclosure of facts supporting an investigation.  For example, in the recent incident where a King County and a Des Moines officer are charged with assaulting an informant, the officer who blew the whistle acknowledged the pressure he felt, which delayed his making the disclosure.
  3. Allow written reprimands, other disciplinary material and IIS files to be retained for longer periods.  Again, this serves truth and accountability.  As with the Brame situation in Tacoma, past incidents can suddenly become highly relevant in light of information surfacing years later.  The public interest is served better by not destroying relevant information and creating a false impression that past incidents never occurred.  It is fair to officers to put time limits on when information can be used against them, but that does not mean the City should destroy the information.
  4. Adopt a formal appeal process for citizens who are dissatisfied with OPA handling of their complaint.  Officers have more than one way to challenge findings against them while complainants do not have any remedies available to challenge findings.  Issues of credibility and fairness require establishment of an appeal process for complainants.

We urge City officials to make a commitment to reclaim the giveaways and to establish a regular process for meaningful public participation on police contract issues PRIOR TO THE BEGINNING of negotiations.

Thank you.