Appeals of Police Discipline Resume After Long Silence

Disciplinary appeals by SPD officers dropped sharply in 2020 (Source: Office of Police Accountability)

By Paul Kiefer

This month, the Seattle City Attorney’s Office is processing the first wave of challenges to Seattle Police Department disciplinary actions since last fall of last year—the longest stretch without a police disciplinary appeal since 2016, despite a spike in reprimands, suspensions and terminations of police officers since Interim Seattle Police Chief Adrian Diaz took the job last September.

In May and early June, four officers who led an out-of-policy high-speed chase in South Seattle last year challenged the written reprimands they received from SPD leadership for the incident; the city attorney’s office didn’t make three of those appeals public until Tuesday afternoon. Although a written reprimand is a less severe type of discipline than other options like suspension or termination, a mark on an officer’s record can lead to a harsher discipline if the officer violates department policy again.

According to an Office of Police Accountability (OPA) investigation of the incident, the out-of-policy chase began when four pairs of SPD officers responded to a 911 call about a stolen pickup truck. Although the man who stole the truck hadn’t committed a violent crime—under SPD policy, a prerequisite for a high-speed pursuit—a South Precinct sergeant allowed the small convoy of cruisers to chase the suspect through a residential area, occasionally driving at more than 80 miles per hour. The officer in the passenger seat of the last cruiser was a 19-year SPD veteran and a field trainer; his driver was an officer-in-training. Six minutes later, a police lieutenant intervened and ordered the officers to end the pursuit; the South Precinct captain later referred the incident to the OPA.

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The OPA only held the four most senior officers—including the field training officer and the sergeant who approved the chase—responsible for breaking department policy; all four have appealed the written reprimands they received from Diaz with the support of their union, the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild (SPOG). Their cases will now go before an arbitrator: a type of attorney who reviews labor disputes and can determine whether to overturn or reduce the discipline.

The last SPD officer to appeal a disciplinary decision was Todd Novisedlak, whom former SPD Chief Carmen Best fired in 2020 after an 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.”

Novisedlak appealed his firing last October, but without support from SPOG, he was unable to bring his case before an arbitrator. Instead, Seattle’s Public Safety Civil Service Commission—a three-person, quasi-judicial panel that reviews disciplinary appeals for SPD and Seattle Fire Department employees—upheld his firing. Compared to arbitrators, the commission is generally less likely to rule in favor of officers, so officers with union support typically bring their appeals to arbitrators instead.

Though twice as many officers faced discipline in 2020 compared to the previous two years—including more terminations in Diaz’s first year as chief than in his predecessor Best’s two and a half years in the position—disciplinary appeals dropped 70 percent between 2019 and 2020. But the latest group of appeals reached the city attorney’s office as the next election for SPOG’s presidency looms on the horizon, as does the beginning of the next round of contract negotiations between the union and the city.