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Monday, January 28, 2008

Licata's Response to Anti-Accountability Ruling

Council member Nick Licata, the main proponent of a piece of police accountability legislation that was ruled against by the Washington state Public Employees Relations Commission (PERC) after the Seattle Police Officer's Guild (SPOG) complained has sent out his reaction to that ruling via a newsletter. Within that letter he explains the purpose of the legislation, why it was needed, and why PERC's ruling does not make any real sense.

First, the legislation gave the Office of Police Accountability Review Board (OPARB) the ability to review unredacted disciplinary case files after the investigations have been completed and any discipline has already been enacted. In other words, the OPARB only reviews findings and decisions, it has no authority to discipline or change findings, only make suggestions based on any patterns of abuse that it finds.

The OPARB is a civilian oversight committee that reviews internal investigation files that have been closed by the officer lead Office of Professional Accountability (OPA) which is Seattle's version of an internal affairs unit. The OPARB does not have any say in those findings nor disciplinary activities, it merely reviews files to identify trends and report those findings to the chief and city council.

Members of the OPARB must sign a confidentiality agreement, which none have ever violated. But in addition to that, they could only view reports that had identifying information blacked out so the reports were difficult to follow and took quite a while to generate before the OPARB could review them. Also, since the reports contained no officer names, it could not identify patterns of repeated abuse and ineffectual discipline, making their role pretty much useless.

The council passed legislation to allow the OPARB to view unchanged reports and gave them immunity from civil suits like those that the SPOG and individual officers used in the past to intimidate lawyers and people who reported abuse.

The SPOG filed an Unfair Labor Practice claim with PERC by stating that the legislation was a change to the disciplinary process which must be negotiated into their contract, not legislated. However, again, the OPARB does not have any control over disciplinary findings, it only reviews closed files and reports identified trends to the council, mayor, and chief of police.

The PERC's ruling makes little sense and demonstrates a lack of understanding about what was ruled upon, as Nick explains here:

"...the PERC Examiner made the ruling that voided ordinance 122126 (and)...PERC further ordered the City to purge all OPARB "findings" based on unredacted files and to return all unredacted files back to the OPA.

The PERC Examiner's unfamiliarity with our system shows through in this order since OPARB does not make "findings" on individual cases but rather makes general policy recommendations. Consequently, there are no OPARB "findings" to purge."

Licata also seems to recognize what I did, that unless the city can successfully appeal, it will never be able to create a real oversight system to protect the civil rights of its citizenry from overzealous police officers who are protected by their guild. Even on the heels of the OPARP and SCCPAP recommendations that are designed to fix the fatally flawed system currently in place, there would be no way to implement those changes if this ruling stands.

Indeed, the SPOG has announced that it plans to file another complaint over legislation that requires the chief to explain in writing why he deviates from OPA recommendations or overrules findings since he has exonerated several officers who had been found at fault by the OPA over the last few years without explanation. Indeed, this is one of the recommendations from the OPARP and SCCPAP.

Since this ruling sets precedence, and since both the PERC and any contract negotiation arbiters rule on the side of precedence, if this stands that legislation will be overturned as well, as will any other OPARP or SCCPAP recommendation. If contract talks go into arbitration, arbiters will decide in favor of the SPOG when it contests any accountability and oversight changes, which it will do as it has done in the past, thus making it impossible for the city to investigate and discipline its police force.

Remember that the bargaining table between the SPOG and the city is what brought the currently broken system into being, as a direct result of language put into the contract at SPOG's urging that weakened the civilian oversight portion of the OPA to the point where they could not function. If efforts to enforce civil rights laws becomes a mandatory subject of bargaining instead of the laws of this nation that the police must follow, one wonders what other laws the police might be able to subject to contract talks... Because allowing this ruling to stand is essentially that, it allows the SPOG to determine who has rights and who does not, all at the expense of public safety.

Currently it is up to the City Attorney to make the determination of whether or not to appeal PERC's ruling. For all of our sakes, I certainly hope he follows Nick Licata's suggestion and appeals it. Otherwise, we effectively have no rights in the eyes of the Seattle Police Department and their guild.

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