Arbitrator's ruling shields disciplined officers
City of Seattle attorneys said Wednesday they are studying their legal options after a labor arbitrator, acting at the request of the police officers union, ordered the Police Department to stop releasing the names of officers found to have engaged in misconduct.
Seattle Times staff reporter
City attorneys said Wednesday they are studying their legal options after a labor arbitrator, acting at the request of the Seattle police officers union, ordered the Police Department to stop releasing the names of officers found to have engaged in misconduct.
The city said it was considering a court appeal of the decision, which could hinge on the Police Department's legal obligations under state public-disclosure laws.
The Seattle Police Officers' Guild hailed the arbitrator's ruling, saying it was defending its right to bargain the issue.
The ruling comes at a time when the Police Department, under U.S. Justice Department investigation over its use of force and treatment of minorities and facing criticism that it is not transparent, has begun publicly to provide more information about internal investigations as part of an effort to promote public trust.
In its arguments to the arbitrator, a police official said the community expected openness from the department.
The arbitrator's order also follows a series of high-profile incidents in which officers' conduct has led to closely watched disciplinary reviews, including the recent 30-day suspension of Officer Shandy Cobane for threatening to beat the "Mexican piss" out of a Latino man who was detained in a robbery investigation last year.
Under the ruling, names of officers involved in such incidents — including undisclosed documents related to Cobane's case — would have to be redacted in internal-investigation records released by the Police Department.
If the city appeals, it must decide whether to continue releasing names while the case is under review or risk lawsuits by those who are denied the names, including the media and others.
"We are reviewing our ability and legal obligation under the state's Public Records Act to continue releasing the names of officers subject to sustained complaints pending appeal," Kimberly Mills, spokeswoman for the City Attorney's Office, said Wednesday in a written statement.
In an 11-page decision made public Wednesday, arbitrator Paul Grace found the city had violated contract language prohibiting the release of the officers' names.
Michele Earl-Hubbard, a Seattle media and open-government attorney, said the arbitrator's ruling contradicts Washington's public-disclosure laws and state Supreme Court decisions since the 1980s that require that the names of public servants be disclosed when misconduct is found.
"This contract can't trump the public-records law, nor can the arbitrator's ruling," Earl-Hubbard said.
If the city abides by the ruling, she said, it would face potential lawsuits and financial penalties from people claiming they have been illegally denied the names of officers.
The ruling stemmed from a 2-year-old dispute between the guild and the city over language in a 2008 contract regarding the release of internal-investigation records sought by news media and the public under the state's Public Disclosure Act.
City officials cited legal obligations under the act when in 2008 they reversed a long-standing policy of redacting officer names from records related to sustained findings of misconduct.
New wording in the contract said the city must only "consider" finding a reason to withhold the names of officers, instead of old wording that said the city "shall" look for a reason. The legal counsel for then-Mayor Greg Nickels called the revision a "big deal."
The policy change, which went into effect in 2009, resulted from 29 recommendations of a citizens panel to hold officers more accountable in the aftermath of two highly publicized incidents that raised questions about police accountability.
But the guild argued that language in the contract still protected the privacy of officers and filed a grievance.
In arguments before Grace, Assistant Police Chief Dick Reed testified that disclosing names is the "expectation of the community that we serve ... that we're open, accountable and transparent."
Reed testified in February that it was the "collective judgment of command staff" that disclosing names wouldn't harm the effectiveness of the department.
Grace, a Shoreline City Council member and former union contract negotiator, found that when Reed instructed the department's Office of Professional Accountability to cease redacting names from internal-investigation documents, he did not cite a court ruling or legal finding to support the city's new position.
Sgt. Rich O'Neill, president of the guild, praised the arbitrator's decision.
In a written statement Wednesday, O'Neill said he was "bewildered" when the city began releasing the names without bargaining with the union.
"This issue could ... be settled by simply sitting down with us and negotiating. When they refuse to sit down and negotiate we are forced to defend our contract by going all the way to arbitration," said O'Neill, who didn't reveal if the union was willing to allow names to be disclosed.
The city and union currently are engaged in talks for a new contract.
When the city began releasing names in 2009, the records not only identified officers but made it easier to decipher the narrative accounts. In the past, the records could be confusing, particularly when officer names were blacked out along with those of other people who are protected for privacy or safety reasons.
The 2008 contract made clear the Police Department must follow public-disclosure law when considering whether to withhold names of officers who have been disciplined, Leo Poort, the Police Department's then-legal adviser, said at the time.
As a result, Poort said, the Police Department no longer would "strain credibility" by withholding the names of disciplined officers on privacy grounds.
Seattle Times reporter Mike Carter contributed to this story, which also contains material from Times archives.
Steve Miletich: 206-464-3302 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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