Narrow Election for Seat on Little-Known Commission Highlights Politics of Police Discipline

By Paul Kiefer

A day before Christmas, a tight election came to an end. The incumbent was Officer Joel Nark, who has worked for the Seattle Police Department for 34 years. His challenger was Doug Johnson, a 21-year veteran of the Seattle Fire Department. Both were after the only elected position on the Public Safety Civil Service Commission (PSCSC), a three-member body that hears certain appeals from police and firefighters who were fired, demoted or suspended. Nark, who currently chairs the PSCSC, has held the elected position since 2003; he ran unopposed in three of the past six elections.

When the City Clerk’s office counted the votes from public safety employees—the only people who can vote in the election—Nark was ahead by one vote. The small margin triggered a recount.

The campaigns for a little-known position in the city’s police accountability system never spilled into the public eye, but the race was a case study in the intersection of politics and police discipline.

In the candidate statement he published last fall, Johnson took a bland, non-confrontational approach, pointing to his record working on the fire department’s Race and Social Justice Team; his experience presenting before the PSCSC, city council and mayor; and his ability to be a “neutral party when making tough decisions.”

Nark chose a very different tone. “The Commission is under assault from the Mayor, City Council, [and] Civilian Police Commission [sic],” he wrote. “They want to take rights away from the four unions that the PSCSC serves.” Nark was referring to a clause in the 2017 Police Accountability Ordinance that would have prohibited city employees from serving on the commission, as well as recently-retired SPD officers. Though that clause would have eliminated Nark’s position and replaced it with an appointee, the city’s 2018 contract with Nark’s union, the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild (SPOG), prevented the city from changing the PSCSC’s makeup.

He then turned his attention to his two co-commissioners—a pair of attorneys, one appointed by the city council and the other by Mayor Jenny Durkan. “The other 2 Commissioners now serving are both attorneys who have no police/fire background [a]nd have been on the PSCSC for 1yr & 1mnth respectfully,” he wrote. “As of now, I Chair the PSCSC and am doing everything I can with my 20yrs of institutional knowledge to protect your rights given to you by the State of WA.” In a gesture to the fact that his opponent is a fire fighter, Nark concluded by naming endorsements from two retired fire fighters.

As chair of the PSCSC, Nark has the ability to make decisions about his colleagues’ disciplinary appeals. His role on the PSCSC raised eyebrows when an SPD Officer named Todd Novisedlak appealed his firing to the PSCSC last year. His appeal hearings began on Tuesday morning.

Retired SPD Chief Carmen Best fired Novisedlak after an Office of Police Accountability (OPA) investigation found that he had beaten his ex-girlfriend and repeatedly used racist, sexist and homophobic slurs, including calling his Black sergeant a “monkey,” calling a fellow officer a “lazy Mexican” and referring to a third officer as “that crazy SPD whore.” Nark was close friends with Novisedlak and served as a witness in the OPA’s investigation. In his statements to the OPA, he said his friend didn’t use racist slurs or abuse his female partners; instead, he claimed to have spoken to Novisedlak’s ex-girlfriend, who he alleged had set out to “ruin” his friend’s career.

After Best fired Novisedlak, he sought to appeal his case. His union, the Seattle Police Officers Guild, wasn’t willing to support his appeal by providing an attorney, which would have enabled Novisedlak to bring his case to a grievance arbitrator—a route favored by police unions because arbitrators support roughly half the appeals they hear. Instead, Novisedlak had to face the PSCSC, which turns down appeals more frequently.

Shortly before the commission began to hear Novisedlak’s appeal on January 19, Nark recused himself from the proceedings, leaving commission’s two newly appointed members to make a decision in the case. But his decision to recuse himself didn’t eliminate the opportunities for conflicts of interest that the city council sought to address in the police accountability ordinance; Nark also heard the appeals of his co-workers, including fellow SPOG members, for the past two decades.

Nark will also have input into the PSCSC’s potential rulings on out-of-order layoffs of SPD officers: a proposal promoted by several city council members last summer as a means to reduce the size of the police force without laying off the newest, most diverse class of SPD recruits. As Durkan and the council emphasized during last summer’s debates about police department staffing, any attempts to lay off senior officers—chosen either for their lengthy disciplinary records or their specialized training for a unit the council deems non-essential, like the mounted unit—need the PSCSC’s stamp of approval. SPOG strongly opposes out-of-order layoffs, giving Nark an important role as the guild’s voice in that decision.

On Monday, the clerk’s office released the new results. According to Janet Polata, an IT supervisor with the city clerk’s office who oversaw the vote, her office received a “significant number of timely-postmarked ballots” after the election officially ended on December 24; she attributed their late arrival to the mail delivery delays in December. When the clerk’s office tallied the votes, Nark remained the winner: His margin increased by 42 votes.

 

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