U.S. District Judge James Robart declined Wednesday to intervene in a labor dispute between the city of Seattle and the police union representing captains and lieutenants, saying the issue didn’t pose a direct challenge to police-accountabilty reforms.
Robart, after listening to arguments, said he didn’t have sufficient reason, at this time, to begin “mucking around” in the dispute.
But Robart reiterated his statement at a previous hearing in which he said he wouldn’t allow constitutional policing to be “held hostage” to collective bargaining as Seattle’s court-ordered reform effort moves forward.
The hearing was requested by the Seattle City Attorney’s Office after the Seattle Police Management Association (SPMA) filed an unfair-labor-practice complaint with a state agency.The complaint contends the court-supervised process formoving forward on police-accountability legislation to be considered by the City Council — including key measures regarding officer discipline — violates the city’s legal obligation to first bargain with the union.
The state’s Public Employment Relations Commission (PERC) has agreed to hear the complaint, which, according to the city, puts it at risk of “conflicting legal obligations” under a 2012 federal consent decreerequiring the Police Department to adopt reforms addressing excessive force and biased policing.
In court papers filed Friday, Seattle City Pete Holmes asked Robart to issue an order barring any outside attack on the consent decree by the police-management association or the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild, (SPOG), including the association’s “collateral attack” by filing the labor complaint.
“If PERC requires the city to first bargain with either 0SPMA or SPOG over the terms of accountability legislation before the court completes its review and the City Council begins its work, the court’s projected timeline and planned next steps will be adversely affected,” Holmes wrote.
The Seattle Police Management Association, whose 74 captains and lieutenants have been locked in contract negotiations with the city since its last contract expired in December 2011, did not file a brief under a deadline set by Robart.
The police officers’ guild, which represents about 1,275 sergeants and officers and also is tied up in contract negotiations, filed court papers in which it did not take a position on the labor compliant.
But the guild said the city has structured the legislation to comply with labor law, citing assurances from the city — codified in official language — that it will bargain in good faith over any provision of the proposed legislation mandating discussion.
The guild, stressing it is not opposed to reform, said it’s comfortable with that approach.
Federal attorneys, whose investigation led to the consent decree, said in a filing they don’t believe the labor complaint presents a “challenge” to the consent decree warranting court intervention.
They urged Robart to withhold taking action unless and until the dispute has “ripened” into a true conflict with the consent decree.
The Seattle Police Management Association “has simply objected to the city’s alleged failure to bargain for such changes, rather than objecting to the substance of such changes,” the attorneys wrote.
The Community Police Commission, a citizen body created as part of the consent decree, also urged the court to hold off.
While saying it doesn’t believe the process for drafting and enacting accountability legislation is an unfair labor practice, the commission wrote that the police-management association and the officers’ guild have the right to seek redress with the state.
The commission said it doesn’t believe the two unions are using the collective-bargaining process to violate the civil rights of community members and questions whether there’s a “factual foundation” to justify a federal court overriding state collective bargaining laws.
“Intervention would be undesirable unless it were truly and clearly necessary to move police reform forward,” the brief said, warning that could be counterproductive.
The issue has also drawn the attention of the M.L. King County Labor Council, whose executive secretary-treasurer, Nicole Grant, said Tuesday she believes the city has created a “red herring” to crimp worker rights.
Even as Robart prepared for Wednesday’s hearing, his monitor released his most recent assessment of the progress made by Seattle police in providing adequate supervision to its officers.
In the sixth assessment since 2012, Merrick Bobb found progress in officers’ supervision and that supervisors are adequately trained.
Officers now are likely to have the same sergeant day in and day out, resulting in continuity of supervision, according to documents filed with Robart on Saturday.
Moreover, those sergeants are doing a better job at counseling officers and ensuring they are acting within the law and following department policy in use-of-force incidents.
“Throughout the ranks, supervisors also reported taking appropriate action with their officers when use of force was found to be problematic, including counseling officers, initiating referrals to their chain of command,” including making note of problems in officer-performance reviews and referring cases that appear to violate policy to the Office of Professional Accountability, Bobb wrote.
The monitor said he is awaiting new data after a 2014 review found “deficiencies in supervisory review” of Type II use-of-force incidents. Those involve force that can be “reasonably sufficient to cause physical injury,” including Tasers, pepper-spray and some impact-weapon strikes.
Bobb said he also is waiting for new data on the oversight of stops of people suspected of criminal activity. The U.S. Attorney’s Office, even before the investigation leading to the consent decree, had raised concerns that Seattle officers were not following the law when it came to stopping and questioning people.