Calling the current SPD grievance and appeals process a "Twilight Zone" that has allowed the police department to reverse findings of misconduct by the Office of Professional Accountability, which responds to citizens' misconduct complaints, city council member Nick Licata is proposing new rules that would bring some of the shadowy SPD appeals process into the open and set limits on how long officers or the police union have to appeal an OPA finding of misconduct.
The spotlight on SPD's appeals process—which takes place after an SPD officer has been disciplined as the result of a sustained OPA complaint—comes in response to the news that interim SPD chief Harry Bailey reversed seven sustained misconduct findings in response to grievances filed over the course of several years by the Seattle Police Officers Guild. Additionally, between 2010 and 2012, OPA has sustained misconduct charges in 72 cases; it's unclear how many, if any, of those sustained findings have been overturned.
Under the current complaint process, the proceedings are public only until the point at which a disciplined SPD employee or the Seattle Police Officers Guild (the police union) can appeal; at that point, it disappears into the aforementioned Twilight Zone (illustrated by the black line below), where neither the guild nor the city is required to reveal whether an OPA ruling is overturned or why. The result is that neither complainants nor ordinary citizens know whether a misconduct finding has been reversed.
Compounding that problem, the union can re-open any case at any time by filing a grievance. The open-ended nature of the process, combined with the secrecy surrounding rulings on appeals, makes it virtually impossible for victims of misconduct to know whether their case has ever been settled for good.
Licata's proposals (which, he emphasizes, have not yet been drafted—"we just found out what was going on a week ago!") would: Require the police guild to inform a complainant and the OPA when it appeals an OPA finding to either the Public Safety Civil Service Commission or a Disciplinary Review Board (currently, the guild can pick which body reviews its appeals, although Licata says they usually choose the disciplinary review board, AKA arbitration); set a time limit on how long the police chief has to decide whether to appeal, eliminating the ability for cases to sit in limbo for years before being appealed, as they do now; and require SPD to inform OPA of the outcome of any appeal.
"I think there’s still a problem of them even having the ability to overturn those decisions in negotiations," Licata says, but at least his proposals "will make [the appeals process] more transparent."
Licata elaborated on his objections to the current appeals process in his March 5 "Urban Politics" newsletter:
As a result of a number of meetings among SPD, the Mayor's Office, the Law Department, OPA, and Councilmembers, we have learned that there may have been a practice for some time of using the grievance and appeals processes to reverse misconduct findings without notice to the public, the OPA, the City Council and conceivably not even the Mayor. It has occurred separate and apart from the OPA process, after most people were led to understand the cases were closed.
Under ordinary circumstances, Licata wrote, the police chief has to make a written statement when he disagrees with an OPA recommendation. However,
It appears that reversals that are the result of a grievance or an appeal, not the outcome of the OPA process, do not adhere to this requirement. As a result, we don't know how many "sustained" decisions have been, basically, negotiated away and not recorded in the corresponding officer's personnel files. This is an important point, since an officer's promotion to levels of higher authority and responsibility is based upon the information contained in their personnel files.
Licata added that the closed-door grievance procedure, under the city's contract with SPOG, can only be used under very limited circumstances; however, "I believe the City has been using the grievance procedure for a number of years, allowing OPA decisions to be negotiated away."
One cause of the problem seems to be that the Guild declines to agree to certain arbitrators and declines to go before the Public Safety Civil Service Commission, so that these cases pile up.
Our next round of labor negotiations is just about to begin and I will be asking the Mayor to make sure that the City's negotiating team understands all of the problems with the current contract and makes it a priority to fix them.