By Paul Kiefer
For the past several weeks, Mayor Jenny Durkan and Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best have argued that the City Council’s plan to reduce SPD’s budget through targeted layoffs would be infeasible and potentially illegal. Council members say that isn’t true, and argue that the mayor and police chief are digging in their heels because they don’t want to do any layoffs at all.
The council’s proposal would use a series of provisos (legally binding restrictions on spending) to eliminate 70 sworn staff, although the council assumes some of this reduction would be through higher-than-normal attrition. The cuts would come both from specific areas—such the elimination of the Navigation Team—and SPD’s general budget. Council members have suggested that the police department prioritize officers with multiple sustained misconduct complaints when making discretionary layoffs.
The mayor and police chief have said labor rules require SPD to lay off its newest hires first. Those rules are the purview of the Public Safety Civil Service Commission (PSCSC): a three-member quasi-judicial body with one member appointed by the council, another by the mayor, and a third elected by the city’s civil service employees.
Implementing the PSCSC rules as written would require laying off the youngest, most diverse group of recruits in SPD’s history—a group, Durkan said during a press conference Wednesday, who “joined the force knowing that [SPD was] under federal oversight” and are therefore “committed to reform.” Conversely, doing layoffs out of order would require eliminating the jobs of more white men—a move that Durkan and Best argue could constitute racial discrimination against white officers.
“You can’t make layoffs based on race,” Chief Best said during a press conference Thursday. “I think the [council’s] request would be to skip over some folks in order to retain people based on race and I don’t think that’s allowable.”
“The executive and council should work together to figure out how to use it to meet our shared objectives, and we should not start with the supposition that a rule that exists to be used can’t be used.”—Seattle City Council member Lisa Herbold
Best isn’t alone in this concern. In a council discussion of the proposal late last month, council member Debora Juarez said out-of-order layoffs could constitute “discrimination based on age and sex” and a violation of the 14th amendment. “The means doesn’t always justify the ends if it’s illegal,” Juarez said.
Council member Lisa Herbold, who chairs the council’s public safety committee, and the other council members who support the proposed cuts, are counting on a rarely (if ever)-used clause in the PSCSC’s rules that allows the police chief to request the permission of the PSCSC director for out-of-order layoffs if they would serve the “efficient operation” of the department.
The problem, according to a letter that Office of Labor Relations director Bobby Humes sent to Durkan’s office on Tuesday, is that “[t]his rule has never before been cited or tested, and there is no definition of what the ‘efficient’ operation of the department looks like.”
However, it’s unclear that it’s true that the rule hasn’t been tested; on Wednesday, for example, Durkan said the rule has “historically been used” for individual layoffs. And Durkan’s assertion that Best would “have to justify every single” request for an out-of-order layoff is somewhat at odds with Humes’ memo, which only mentions a possibility that Best may have to justify each individual layoff.
“The [council’s] request would be to skip over some folks in order to retain people based on race and I don’t think that’s allowable.”—Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best
A memo explaining the mayor’s position on out-of-order layoffs distributed to members of the media this week does not list legal precedents to back her statement that out-of-order layoffs would need to be argued individually.
In a press conference with council president Lorena Gonzalez and council member Tammy Morales on Thursday, Herbold responded to some of the mayor and police chief’s claims, starting with Durkan’s claims that out-of-order layoffs are impossible. “The rule exists, and thus it can be used,” said Herbold. “The executive and council should work together to figure out how to use it to meet our shared objectives, and we should not start with the supposition that a rule that exists to be used can’t be used.”
Herbold added that she and her colleagues hope to collaborate with Best to craft the requests for out-of-order layoffs to be sent to PSCSC Director Laura Scheele. The question now, according to Herbold, “is whether [Best] will work with us in developing a request… that has the best chance to preserve the diversity of the police department in a way that is constitutional, legal according to labor law, does not choose layoffs by race, and preserves the efficient functioning of the department as the rule itself requires.”
Best has not yet said whether she would be willing to bring a request for out-of-order layoffs to the PSCSC. At Thursday’s press conference, she said that the council had not asked her to sit down with them (although the council has talked to other members of SPD’s command staff), and said “it definitely feels very personal to me.”
Herbold and her colleagues are still working with the city’s law department to review their options for arguing that out-of-order layoffs serve the “efficient operation” of SPD. She says one of the council’s proposed strategies– targeting officers with extensive records of complaints – would be based on the argument that the time and resources spent processing complaints, disciplinary actions, and appeals undermine the department’s efficiency. However, Herbold acknowledged that the council will have to grapple with the possibility that their strategy will be challenged on the grounds that it involves punishing officers twice for the same offense, which could be illegal.
At the front of Herbold’s mind, however, is convincing Best to bring requests for out-of-order layoffs to PSCSC Director Laura Scheele. “She’s the one who has to make the argument,” says Herbold. “She runs the department, so she’s best placed to make the argument.”