Two Bills on Cop Discipline Illustrate Limits of Labor Support for Police Reform

Sen. Joe Nguyen (D-34) presents before the Washington State Senate’s Labor, Commerce and Tribal Affairs Committee on Thursday

By Paul Kiefer

Labor leaders, police accountability activists and elected officials from across the state, including Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan and Seattle City Councilmember Lisa Herbold, testified Thursday in Olympia about two state senate bills intended to restructure or streamline the disciplinary process for police. The testimonies from the labor leadership revealed the sharp divide between Seattle’s labor movement, which distanced itself from police unions in June, and the statewide labor movement, which continues to defend police union membership—in their words, both out of solidarity and for self-preservation.

The first bill, sponsored by Senator Joe Nguyen (D-34) and a dozen of his colleagues, would streamline the arbitration process that police union members use to challenge disciplinary rulings by empowering the state’s Public Employee Relations Commission (PERC) to choose the attorneys who decide the outcomes of appeals. Under the current statewide system, both employers and police unions have to agree on an arbitrator from a pool of private attorneys; that system is rife with delays.

The bill would also prohibit police union collective bargaining agreements from including conditions that violate or nullify state or local laws; that clause would prevent a repeat of the 2018 contract between Seattle and the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild (SPOG) that nullified key elements of the sweeping police accountability ordinance the city council passed in 2017.

The second bill, sponsored by Senator Jesse Salomon (D-32) and five of his colleagues, would eliminate the arbitration process altogether and require officers to appeal disciplinary decisions to quasi-judicial bodies called civil service commissions, whose members are mostly appointed by mayors and city councils. Seattle already has its own Public Safety Civil Service Commission, but officers only appeal disciplinary decisions to that commission if their union has declined to support their appeal, which is rare.

The bill would also require departments to automatically fire any officers found guilty of a set of extreme offenses—including excessive force, hiding or falsifying evidence, and engaging in sexual contact with anyone in custody. And it would prohibit police union contracts from restricting accountability and oversight by, among other means, limiting the subpoena authority of civilian oversight bodies and allowing the sealing or destruction of officers’ misconduct records.

At their core, both Nguyen and Salomon’s bills would make law enforcement bargaining rules more distinct from the rules that govern any other employees. But to most of the labor representatives who testified at the hearing, the two bills are night and day. While Nguyen’s would limit the input of both unions and management in the arbitration process, Salomon’s would specifically limit the powers of police unions and the disciplinary appeal options for law enforcement officers.

Statewide labor leaders, including representatives from the Washington State Labor Council, argued Thursday that police accountability reforms that restrict the powers of police unions could have dire consequences for the power of organized labor in the state as a whole, threatening the due process and collective bargaining rights of all workers. Shaunie Wheeler James, the political director for Teamsters Joint Council 28 (and a member of the Port of Seattle’s Commission on Port Policing and Civil Rights), called the bill a “stalking horse for those with an agenda to undermine all workers.”

Several labor leaders dismissed the notion that the collective bargaining process and arbitration stood in the way of meaningful police reforms. State labor council president Larry Brown, for example, argued that the real barrier to reform is police management, who oversee training, hiring, and data collection about misconduct and use of force, rather than rank and file officers.

“Nothing in this bill addresses the police leadership—the chiefs, the sheriffs, and the training programs—that have allowed these culture problems to persist,” he said.

Only one labor representative testified in favor of Salomon’s bill: David Parsons, the president of UAW 4121—a union representing graduate, doctoral and postdoctoral student employees at the University of Washington.

Seattle-area labor leadership joined forces with police accountability advocates last summer, mostly notably in June, when the Martin Luther King County Labor Council expelled SPOG from their organization. That local shift was visible on Thursday, when representatives from the ACLU of Washington and Black Lives Matter Seattle-King County joined Parsons in supporting the bill, as did prominent police accountability expert and retired municipal court judge Anne Levinson and Fred Thomas, the father of a man killed by police officers in Fife in 2013 who is now a leader in police accountability lobbying group Next Steps Washington.

In contrast, both law enforcement and non-law enforcement labor lobbyists seemed cautiously optimistic about Nguyen’s bill. Joseph Kendo, the government affairs director for the WSLC, only balked at the proposal to limit the pool of arbitrators to nine members, which he said was too few to meet the statewide need. Washington State Fraternal Order of Police president Marco Monteblanco said the bill would provide officers a more consistent, unbiased arbitration process.

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