Big changes urged in SPD discipline cases
A retired judge’s report draws a stark picture of an appeals and grievance process that can be gamed to dodge oversight, create delay and engender pressure to settle cases, all outside of public view.
Seattle Times staff reporter
The Seattle Police Department should eliminate the use of training as a separate alternative to misconduct findings against officers, a city watchdog recommends in a newly released review.
Anne Levinson, the civilian auditor of the department’s Office of Professional Accountability (OPA), prepared the special review after it was revealed in February that, in the course of resolving pending appeals, Interim Police Chief Harry Bailey had overturned misconduct findings imposed on seven officers in favor of additional training.
One of the findings was reinstated, but the others were not.
Levinson’s 16-page review draws a stark picture of an appeals and grievance process that can be gamed to dodge oversight, create delay and engender pressure to settle cases, outside of public view.
It also concluded that it is vital the entire disciplinary process “take into account the importance of public trust in, and employee respect for, the integrity of the police accountability system.”
Mayor Ed Murray, who initiated his own broad review of the process in the wake of the misconduct reversals, issued a statement Friday thanking Levinson, a retired judge who provides independent oversight and does not report to the mayor, City Council or Police Department.
“Her recommendations are important, and there is no disagreement about the need for serious reform of this process, ” Murray said. A similar report from his own police adviser is due April 21, along with forthcoming recommendations from the Community Police Commission.
Ron Smith, president of the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild, said Friday that many of the recommendations will require bargaining with the union, whose contract expires at the end the year.
“Everything’s negotiable,” Smith said. He disputed that officers seek to game the system, saying procedures derive from previous negotiations with the city.
In her report, Levinson said the city should create enforceable timelines throughout the disciplinary process, including appeals.
“The reasoning that old cases are cases that should be settled leads to the result that there is no reason the appellant should move forward with the hearing process in a timely fashion because the longer the delay, the more justification will be provided for any settlement demands the appellant makes,” Levinson wrote.
Smith said his Guild members also would like to see timelier conclusions of cases that take too long.
In recommending elimination of the training referral, Levinson noted that, despite statements to the contrary, training “has been and remains an option that the Chief can require in addition to discipline once a finding has been sustained.”
In a radical departure from current practice, Levinson recommended that, in certain disciplinary cases recommended by OPA’s director, the chief should not only meet with the officer before deciding the outcome, but also separately with the person who brought the complaint.
“While employees have important due process rights, the disciplinary process can appear to the public as unfair because the employee has contractual rights that the complainant is not afforded,” she wrote.
Concerning appeals and grievances, Levinson noted current practice allows officers to go either before a three-member civil-service panel mandated by the state or, as part of a collective-bargaining agreement, before a three-member arbitration board chaired by an arbitrator.
The city should consider using hearing examiners instead of arbitrators, who are often unavailable on a timely basis and are chosen by mutual agreement of both sides, which gives one party veto power, Levinson said.
“There is also a financial incentive for arbitrators to ‘split’ decisions so they will continue to get selected by both parties in the future,” Levinson wrote.
The arbitration board also includes a police commander and a Guild member, whose presence creates the perception of a conflict of interest, Levinson wrote.
The best solution, she said, is to have one body that “reflects fairness to all parties,” rather than two.
Disciplinary appeals should go to the civil-service panel, possibly headed by a city hearing examiner, her review said. But a sworn police officer shouldn’t be on the panel, as is currently the practice, because that can undermine public faith, Levinson wrote.
Among other recommendations, Levinson urged that:
• All Seattle police and OPA materials describing the disciplinary process include a description of the possibility of appeals.
• Summary reports on the outcome of internal investigations include any changes to the disposition or discipline as a result of appeals or grievances.
• The OPA auditor be notified when an appeal or grievance has been filed, with an opportunity to provide input.
• The OPA director and City Attorney’s Office be consulted by whomever makes substantive decisions on appellate strategy, settlements or resolutions.
• Hearings before the arbitration board be open to the public, which is not now the practice.
Steve Miletich: 206-464-3302 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @stevemiletich