Concerned about whether cops get held accountable for misconduct? Pay attention to this: Ron Smith, the head of Seattle’s largest police union, says the city’s Community Police Commission is making a “naive” attempt to reform the department’s discredited disciplinary appeal system.
“The narrative that we are an obstacle to reform—there’s no truth to that,” said Smith, speaking by phone in response to my post yesterday about troubling passages in the latest Seattle Police Officers Guild (SPOG) union newsletter. “But people have to realize that cops have due process rights just like anyone else.”
Contract negotiations between the city and SPOG don’t begin until January 7, but Smith has already filed a demand with the city to preserve the Discipline Review Board (DRB), according to the newsletter. The DRB is a closed-door panel, created to hear disciplinary appeals, made up of two members of SPD—one commander with the rank of lieutenant or above, and one police union member—plus a mutually agreed-upon outside arbitrator.
In October, the board overturned an eight-day suspension of Officer Eric Faust for punching a man who spit on him. SPOG touted the decision as a “vindication,” while Anne Levinson, a police accountability auditor, called it “reform in reverse.”
Levinson and the Community Police Commission, a 15-member group set up as a key component of the federally mandated SPD reform process, both recommend that the DRB be scrapped.
Instead, they say, appeals of disciplinary decisions by officers should be handled by an impartial Public Safety Civil Service Commission (a completely different body than the Community Police Commission, if you’re trying to keep track. Bleh).
But Smith dismissed that idea, calling the civil service commission a “kangaroo court stacked against police officers and firefighters.”
“If the chief is wrong,” he said, “they’re not going to overturn her. It’s not fair.” He said this is because two out of three commission members are appointed by the mayor and city council, respectively, and they won’t want to go against the people who appointed them, or the chief, who is appointed by the mayor. The third member is selected by city employees—currently Joel Nark, a member of SPD.
Smith said he’s not opposed to making the DRB hearings public, instead of holding them in private. But he was firm that the DRB—again, a body of two police and one external mediator—rather than the civil service commission, is the only fair venue for disciplinary appeals.
Does he believe the Community Police Commission wants to deprive cops of what he calls due process, by getting rid of the DRB? “I don’t think that’s their intent,” he said. “I think they’re naive as to the makeup of the civil service commission.”
Smith also said that he’s been “more collaborative [with city leaders and the DOJ] than any union president to date dealing with these issues.”
But on this important issue—Smith imagined aloud a scenario where the city and SPOG go into arbitration over the DRB after unresolved labor negotiations—the head of Seattle’s main police union is completely isolated. Community police commission co-chair Lisa Daugaard’s response to Smith’s comments, sent by e-mail, is below.
Everyone who was charged with looking into the reversals of discipline decisions by then-Interim Chief Harry Bailey reached the same conclusions: first, that to have multiple routes of appeal after discipline has been imposed is a mistake; and second, that the appeal process needs to be both fair and perceived as fair. The CPC’s recommendations in this area were identical to those of the Mayor’s special advisor on police issues, Barney Melekian, and OPA Auditor Anne Levinson.
Of course, officers are entitled to due process. No one has recommended abolishing a fair process for appeal from disciplinary decisions, nor could that occur under applicable law.
The CPC is completely committed to ensuring that officers are treated fairly.
The Civil Service Commission exists by state statute and Seattle cannot abolish it, though we did recommend some changes to its composition and functioning. To maintain a Discipline Review Board as well necessarily creates multiple avenues for appeal—the very problem many pointed out this spring.
Moreover, the DRB as presently constituted is dominated by active employees of SPD. The problem with that is that, even if the DRB makes a well-founded decision in favor of an officer in a controversial case, that decision will lack public legitimacy. The community will infer that the police are protecting their own, even if in fact the DRB decision is correct and fair. That’s not a good outcome for anyone.