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Originally published Tuesday, May 3, 2011 at 5:48 PM

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Seattle won't renew contract with law firm that represents police

Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes announced Tuesday that he is not renewing the city's nearly 40-year contract with private law firm Stafford Frey Cooper and putting complex litigation, including cases involving police, out for bid.

Seattle Times staff reporter

quotes If Rich O'Neill, president of the police guild, is against it I know its the right move... Read more
quotes Maybe the city would save money in Tort claims by firing the officers in question and... Read more
quotes No one firm should hold the contrat for 40 years. Is it just me or does this seem... Read more

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Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes announced Tuesday he is not renewing the city's nearly 40-year contract with private law firm Stafford Frey Cooper and will put complex litigation, including cases involving police, out for bid.

While Holmes says the move will save an estimated $800,000 annually, it has drawn sharp criticism from the Seattle Police Officers' Guild, which opposes the change.

Starting this month, police officers in legal trouble will be represented by either the City Attorney's Office or outside counsel hired through competitive bidding, according to Holmes' office. This will include complex cases alleging police misconduct, wrongful arrest, wrongful death, excessive use of force and violations of federal civil rights, said Kimberly Mills, Holmes' spokeswoman.

Because of the anticipated increase in cases from ending the contract, the City Attorney's Office has hired two lawyers, a paralegal and a legal assistant, the City Attorney's Office said in a news release.

Stafford Frey Cooper has handled about 30 cases each year for the city, at an hourly billing of about $275. The City Attorney's Office rate is $100 per hour, according to the city.

The contract with the Seattle law firm expired at the end of last year.

In a memo last summer to Mayor Mike McGinn, Holmes said that since 1999 the city has paid Stafford Frey Cooper about $18 million for representing Seattle police in tort litigation.

Stafford Frey Cooper represented former Officer Ian Birk during a January inquest into the fatal shooting last summer of woodcarver John T. Williams.

Representing police is only a fraction of the firm's practice. According to Stafford Frey Cooper's website, the firm has expertise in more than two dozen other types of law.

Rich O'Neill, president of the police guild, said Tuesday the guild plans to file an unfair-labor-practice complaint with the state Public Employment Relations Commission because the guild's contract requires the city to follow "past practice" in matters of police litigation.

While the terminology is vague, O'Neill said the contract indicates the city is required to retain Stafford Frey Cooper to represent police.

O'Neill believes that terminating the contract is "clearly a mandatory subject of bargaining." Holmes disagrees.

In a letter sent to the police guild last year, Holmes said "the selection of counsel for city employees is a decision vested within the discretion of the City Attorney, and is not subject to collective bargaining."

"It's our feeling that this is a change to our working condition and needs to be bargained, and that's what we told him," O'Neill said. "Like any good attorneys, they [Stafford Frey Cooper] aren't cheap. They give officers a feeling of security."

O'Neill said he met with Holmes and his staff several times over the past few months but that neither side could come to an agreement.

Stafford Frey Cooper would be eligible to bid on representing the city on individual cases and likely would be awarded some cases because of its expertise, the City Attorney's Office said.

"By any objective standard or analysis, the city has received excellent and cost-effective representation over the years from this firm," said Ted Buck, a lawyer with Stafford Frey Cooper.

"This city pays less in defense costs, settlements and judgments than any city equally sized in America."

Information from Seattle Times archives is included in this report.

Jennifer Sullivan: 206-464-8294 or jensullivan@seattletimes.com

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