Fighting for statewide reforms

Remove arbitration as a route of appeal for police misconduct

Like many places across the country, Seattle's arbitration system is broken. Currently, there are more than 80 open cases in which a police officer has been found to have committed misconduct and is appealing the chief's decision through arbitration. In some of those cases, the misconduct happened five years ago, and the case remains unresolved. That backlog is only getting worse. Throughout all of 2019, only two cases were resolved through arbitration, delaying or denying justice for the victims of police misconduct.

Not only is arbitration functionally broken, but it is also a fundamentally flawed way of handling police misconduct. Under arbitration:

  • police unions play a role in deciding who that arbitrator is;
  • arbitrators often do not have expertise in police or police accountability work;
  • the proceedings are not transparent, open to the public, or open to the media; and
  • arbitrators can substitute their judgment for that of the police chief who is trying to hold their officers accountable. For example, the reinstatement of Adley Shepherd -- who the Seattle Police Department was forced to rehire because of an arbitrator's decision after he punched a handcuffed woman in the back of his squad car (this case still has not been settled despite happening in 2014).

The 2017 Accountability Ordinance addressed these flaws by ensuring disciplinary appeals would take place before a neutral three-member Public Safety Civil Service Commission (PSCSC) appeals panel or a hearing officer with subject matter expertise designated by the PSCSC. The process would have been timeline bound, hearing officers would have been appointed through a merit-based process, and the process would have been public.

Unfortunately, those reforms were given up by the City when it allowed for the continued use of arbitration and rolled back the changes to the PSCSC Commissioner qualifications and appointment process in the latest police contracts.

The CPC raised concerns about the continued use of arbitration to the federal judge overseeing the Consent Decree in 2018. In response, the City argued that arbitration "has significant advantages and it is a fundamental feature of both federal and state labor law." The judge disagreed, pointing to Seattle's arbitration system as a key reason why he found the city out of compliance with the Consent Decree in terms of accountability.

While the CPC believes the City already has full authority to implement the appeals system outlined in the Accountability Ordinance, the City has taken the position that changes to "state labor law" are needed to do so. Given that, securing those changes must be a priority.

Other statewide reforms we need: