Seattle is set to approve a new contract for the bulk of sworn officers within the Seattle Police Department in 2024. (SPD)

The Seattle Police Officers Guild (SPOG) collective bargaining agreement has languished for three full years since its expiration at the end of 2020. That expired contract has held up accountability reforms that Judge Robart, the federal judge overseeing the City of Seattle and the Seattle Police Department’s consent decree, has said are necessary before Justice Department oversight can officially end. It has delayed efforts to begin a new civilian emergency first response program like ones currently operating in many peer cities. And it has stood firm against efforts to “reimagine public safety” to be more equitable and more responsive to root causes.

In her opening remarks at the first Seattle City Council meeting of 2024, Councilmember Tammy Morales said one of the important tasks entrusted to the Council this year will be voting on a new SPOG contract. This contract will determine both how police officers in Seattle are (or are not) held accountable for misconduct and how big of a budget chunk the SPD will be taking from next year’s General Fund. 

We’ve discussed what a new SPOG contract could mean in broad terms. But when the new contract is released, what specific issues should we be looking for?

The City’s bargaining priorities become more clear

A recent sustainability assessment of the Seattle accountability system conducted by the consent decree’s Court Monitor cites a declaration from one of the City’s labor negotiators, stating that the City’s priorities for the new contract are:

“1) Calculation of the 180-day timeline for disciplinary investigations.

2)  Limits on subpoena authority for Office of Police Accountability (OPA) and Office of the Inspector General (OIG).

3)  The standard of review and quantum of proof in disciplinary appeals. And,

4)  Features of grievance arbitration that affect public confidence, such as degree of transparency.”

Let’s dig into each of these priorities, as well as other goals of accountability, in more detail below.

Achieving parity with the recent police management contract

The Seattle Police Management Association (SPMA) agreed to a new labor contract in 2022 that advanced the cause of police accountability. However, the SPMA represents less than 100 lieutenants and captains employed by SPD. In contrast, sworn officers and sergeants are represented by SPOG — 96% of accountability cases at the OPA fall under their agreement. Advocates will be looking to see to what extent the progress won in the SPMA contract is reflected in the SPOG contract. 

These changes include:

  • Providing subpoena power to both the Office of Police Accountability (OPA) and the Office of the Inspector General (OIG). Subpoena power is necessary to enable greater investigative power and independence of both bodies from SPD. As in the case of the SPMA agreement, this could appear in the contract implicitly (i.e., not prohibiting subpoena power from being used as the current SPOG contract does).
  • Establishing the standard of evidence for police misconduct as a preponderance of evidence across the board. This standard of evidence would make it less onerous for the OPA to prove their cases.
  • Providing a definition of honesty that doesn’t make it as easy for officers to lie in the course of an investigation.
  • Establishing a “disciplinary review” process that fixes some of the problems with arbitration.
  • Requiring disciplinary review meetings to be conducted in public, which helps with transparency issues.
  • Phasing out extra pay for wearing and utilizing body worn cameras.

The 180-day clock

Right now the Office of Police Accountability (OPA) must complete all misconduct investigations within 180 days. If they fail to do so, an officer cannot be disciplined. The Court Monitor recommends this requirement be eliminated, saying, “A requirement that an investigation be completed within an arbitrary time frame can make it impossible for the SPD to hold its officers accountable, even in the face of serious misconduct and/or where allegations and investigations are complex.”

Allowing for the civilianization of the OPA

The OPA is currently constrained to only two civilian investigators. The majority of their investigators are sworn officers who rotate into the OPA for a certain period of time before returning to another posting within SPD. In addition, the two civilian investigators aren’t allowed to investigate “any case that reasonably could lead to termination”. Both these stipulations lead to an imbalanced caseload between the groups, to say nothing of the conflict of interest of having officers investigating other officers, beside whom they will later return to serve.

Removing the Clause Explicitly Undermining the 2017 Accountability Ordinance

The City Council passed a much lauded accountability ordinance back in 2017 that would have established a robust accountability system. However, a year later they voted to approve the current SPOG contract, which doesn’t allow many of the provisions outlined in the legislation to be implemented. In fact, in Appendix E it specifically says: “In the event there is a conflict between the language of the Ordinance and the language of the CBA or the explanations and modifications in this Appendix, the language of the CBA or this Appendix shall prevail.”

This gap between the Accountability Ordinance and the SPOG contract was cited by the Court in 2019 when Judge Robart found the City out of compliance with parts of the consent decree.

Advocates for police accountability in Seattle will be looking to see if the next contract allows the 2017 accountability ordinance to be fully implemented instead of allowing the contract to supersede this important legislation.

The recent SPOG MOU revisited

The recently passed Memorandum of Understanding with SPOG gives SPD officers special bonuses for volunteering to staff event shifts. In return, the City is allowed to run a dual dispatch civilian emergency response pilot, have civilians staff some event shifts, and have unarmed park rangers work in parks outside of downtown. The MOU also places some unfortunate restrictions on how many alternate responders the dual dispatch pilot can hire and what call types they can respond to, as well as requiring the responders to file incident reports in SPD’s system.

This agreement expires at the beginning of 2026. Contracts with SPOG tend to take many years to negotiate, so if details of how this program is going to continue to operate aren’t included in the next contract, there could be either an abrupt ending or a deliberate stunting of necessary hiring for the dual dispatch program. If details are included, advocates will be looking at whether the city will be required to continue paying a premium to SPOG members (around $4 million per year) in order to help alleviate SPD’s staffing issues, as well as if the program will be allowed to expand as similar ones have in other cities, both in size and call types responded to. 

Will taxpayers continue to fund part of the SPOG president’s salary?

The 2018 contract requires the City to pay for around 70% of the SPOG president’s salary, which is the portion that has been determined to allow this person to maintain their skills and training as a police officer and to pay for their time spent dealing with the City in labor management meetings, grievances, and so on. 

Advocates will be interested in whether this percentage remains the same in the new contract and whether taxpayers will continue to foot the bill for the SPOG president to attend meetings.

Comparing the overall increase in SPOG compensation to that of other City workers

While everyone deserves fair wages, when we’re looking at the new SPOG contract we need to compare it to the other recent labor contracts negotiated by the city. In December, the city entered into a new collective bargaining agreement with the Seattle Fire Fighters Union and announced a tentative deal with the Coalition of City Unions.

The firefighters received a 0.5% market adjustment plus a 4% annual wage increase (AWI) for 2022, a 2.5% AWI for 2023, and an AWI tied to the local price consumer index for the next three years, to fall between 2% and 4%. The Coalition of City Unions are to receive a 5% AWI for 2023, a 4.5% AWI for 2024, and then raises equal to or 1% higher than the local price consumer index to fall between 2% and 4%. The firefighters are also receiving a cost of living adjustment (COLA) bank that allows them to store excess cost of living increases during years when inflation is higher than 4%.

Because they’ve gone without a contract for three years, SPOG members will mostly likely be receiving millions of dollars in backpay to account for any wage increases bargained. While covering backpay is common practice for collective bargaining agreements, less usual is the large amount of time it takes to negotiate a SPOG contract, which necessarily leads to higher payouts and a greater strain on City resources. The City is already facing an ongoing general fund deficit of over $200 million dollars, starting in 2025, with the incoming city council showing no signs of a proposal to increase revenue.

In the past, SPOG members have also received extra money to use body-worn cameras, and they are now receiving special bonuses for special event shifts. In addition, last year the City Council passed legislation allowing for hiring bonuses for new officers, in spite of a lack of data showing such bonuses are effective at increasing hiring. In fact, as of the end of September, SPD expected to miss their hiring goals for 2023 by 36 officers. They had particular trouble hiring lateral officers, meaning officers who already have work experience, in spite of offering them a hiring bonus of $30,000. By the end of the year, SPD was expecting to have a net loss of 27 officers.

Any new SPOG contract comes with a price tag, which should be carefully scrutinized as we approach 2025 with its $218 million budget deficit and underinvestment in areas that would address root causes of the City’s woes, including housing, drug harm reduction and violence prevention programs.

Theory versus practice

While all of the above are important issues advocates will be looking for a new contract to address, the Harrell administration is already level-setting expectations, saying they won’t necessarily even be able to address the four accountability points listed at the beginning of this article. And the new City Council isn’t helping the City’s bargaining position, with new Public Safety Chair Kettle saying he believes SPD is “the best police force in the country” and new Council President Sara Nelson calling for police raises

Instead the Mayor’s Office is predictably kicking the can over to the state legislature, who are deeply reluctant to address police guild bargaining issues due to organized labor’s divided stance on the issue. 

And so we go round and round on this merry-go-round of delays and excuses, with elected officials giving lip service to important issues of police accountability while failing to deliver tangible results. 

If Seattle’s government doesn’t deliver on a SPOG contract that improves its accountability provisions, Judge Robart will have a difficult decision to make. Will he release the City in full from the consent decree? Or will he extend the decree, holding onto the small amount of power he has to apply pressure for change? If he chooses the latter, the next contract with SPOG might not finish negotiating until 2028 or even later, meaning the consent decree could drag on for sixteen plus years.

The Mayor’s Office might try to toe the line, negotiating just enough accountability improvements for the Judge to be able to wash his hands of the whole sordid mess of the consent decree after more than eleven long years. Regardless, in addition to its other problems, we’re witnessing how ineffective the federal consent decree has been when it comes to addressing the longstanding barriers to accountability that exist in the SPOG contract. Because the Judge doesn’t have a say at the bargaining table, there is only so much influence he can yield.

Realistically, real and sustained change would likely require both the City and the state legislature to step up and get serious about accountability.

But of one thing we can be reasonably sure: the ballooning price tag that will be attached to any new contract that is negotiated, regardless of how far it advances accountability in our city. 

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Amy Sundberg is the publisher of Notes from the Emerald City, a weekly newsletter on Seattle politics and policy with a particular focus on public safety, police accountability, and the criminal legal system. She also writes science fiction, fantasy, and horror novels. She is particularly fond of Seattle’s parks, where she can often be found walking her little dog.