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Manny Ellis investigation, police accountability
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Battle over police accountability ramps up in Washington state

Brian Giordano holds a sign during a vigil for his best friend, Manuel Ellis. (Photo by David Ryder/Getty Images)

George Floyd. Breonna Taylor. Manny Ellis. These were the names being chanted in the streets of Seattle, Tacoma, Everett and many other Washington cities in 2020, as the Black community had enough and demanded change and accountability during months of protests that still continue.

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Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan committed to reforms, but also stressed it was not something the city could achieve on its own with some of the most important change needed at the state level, specifically regarding arbitration.

“The system today gives the ability to have a whole new trial after the chief makes her decision with maybe whole new evidence. That’s out of step with what we want accountability to be,” Durkan said at the time, as she called on lawmakers in Olympia to work on proposals that started making their way through the legislative process over the last week.

“The killing of George Floyd sent a shockwave throughout the entire United States. Unfortunately, it’s not the first such killing under relatively similar circumstances. And it’s not going to be the last,” said Democratic Senator Jesse Salomon, who is sponsoring the more controversial of two bills taking on arbitration as it relates to police contracts.

“There’s a long history of arbitration requirements that have been implemented by agreement, a collection of collective bargaining between police and local government that shields officers from accountability. And until we address that, there’s just not a system in place that can stop these heinous acts from happening,” he said after a hearing on SB 5134, which he believes will lead to crucial changes.

Durkan agrees.

“If Olympia does not act on arbitration and strengthen the proposal, here are the real consequences: Officers terminated or disciplined for significant misconduct will continue to be reinstated,” she said in testimony on the proposal. “Community confidence will be diminished, making it more difficult for every officer to do their jobs. Discipline and accountability in departments will be undermined, making it more difficult to ensure the proper cultures and actions in a department.”

SB 5134 would do the following:

  • Prohibits collective bargaining agreements covering law enforcement officers from including certain provisions related to discipline and oversight.
  • Prohibits the use of arbitration for appeals of the discipline of law enforcement officers for misconduct, and requires appeals of the discipline to go through a civil service commission, hearing examiner, or administrative law judge.
  • Prohibits, on an appeal of the discipline of an officer, the reduction of the discipline imposed by the employer unless the discipline was arbitrary, capricious, or based on an illegal reason.
  • Establishes a list of specific misconduct that must result in the discharge.

“I want to point out that we have great police officers in Spokane and across the state,” Spokane City Council President Breean Beggs told the panel. “I really reject the idea that there are bad apples, [that] there may be an occasional person that really has a bad intent.”

“But mostly, its policies and training that get in the way, and the whole policies around discipline are some of them,” he continued, stressing the importance of addressing the fact that as more families deal with loved ones killed and severely injured at the hands of police, they feel like the system is stacked against justice.

Fred Thomas is one of those family members. He told the committee, his 31-year-old son was shot and killed by a Lakewood police sniper in 2013.

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“With I-940, the voters of Washington said they wanted transparency and accountability from our law enforcement agencies. Unfortunately, collective bargaining prohibits either from being possible and shields officers from accountability for misconduct, including excessive force,” said Thomas, who pointed out the officer who shot his son got over a week to write his statement, during which he was able to communicate with his chief who was the incident commander the night of the shooting, and also sat on the review panel that found the shooting justified.

“Transparency and accountability are paramount to Washington citizens and we will have neither until we remove this discipline from contract negotiations,” Thomas testified.

Several law enforcement groups voiced concerns with the bill.

“It just simply goes too far,” said James McMahan with the Washington Association of Sheriff’s and Police Chiefs. “We seek a more balanced approach so that the grievance arbitration process between labor and management truly is balanced and not tipped too far in one way or the other.”

“The binding arbitration process allows objective third-party decision makers to ensure laws, department policy and labor agreements have been followed. Management doesn’t always get it right,” said Teresa Taylor, the executive director of the Washington Council of Police and Sheriffs, pointing to pointing to the rough estimate of management prevailing in about half of arbitration cases.

“This bill asks you Madam Chair and members of the committee to pick winners and losers. The Legislature should not be in the business of creating second class citizens when it comes to labor, employment, and due process rights,” Taylor added.

Other non-police groups also spoke out against the bill, seeing it as an overall erosion of collective bargaining rights. There is also a particular concern with a provision of the bill that mandates the firing of officers found to have used excessive force, because the language is seen as being too broad.

“There’s just certain acts that mandate, in my opinion, that officers can no longer serve as officers because they’re so violative of public trust,” explained sponsor Jesse Salomon. “I agree that we need to continue to define the term excessive force in the bill. I do not intend for an officer who’s served for 15 years with no disciplinary record, who makes the mistake to be fired. So I do agree that we need to keep working on that specific section.”

There was more support for a second bill from Democratic Senator Joe Nguyen. SB 5055, among other things, would create a pool of nine rotating arbiters to exclusively handle grievances in disciplinary issues, and bar public employers of law enforcement from entering into a collective bargaining agreement that blocks implementation of, alters, or suppresses a local ordinance or charter requiring civilian review of officer discipline.

While that bill had more support, several who testified on the bills wanted to see it go further, including Mayor Durkan and Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards.

As for Salomon, he hopes to work the bill through session and get it across the finish line for a big victory on accountability, but admits he’ll need all the help he can get, so his message to supporters.

“I think it’s really important that you contact your legislators, your Senate and House members, to tell them that this is important to you because this bill will not move unless there is a groundswell of support,” Salomon said.

In the meantime, expect the arbitration issue to play a big role in what comes next for the Seattle Police Department, as the city council, federal monitoring team, and judge overseeing an ongoing consent decree focus on a police accountability system with some teeth.

Follow Hanna Scott on Twitter or email her here

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