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Shawn Vestal: The road to true reform starts with limiting the authority of police unions

A chalk image of Breonna Taylor – who was killed on March 13, by Louisville Metro Police Department officers – is seen during a small Black Lives Matter protest in front of Spokane City Hall on Monday, June 8, 2020, in Spokane.  (TYLER TJOMSLAND/Spokesman-Review)
A chalk image of Breonna Taylor – who was killed on March 13, by Louisville Metro Police Department officers – is seen during a small Black Lives Matter protest in front of Spokane City Hall on Monday, June 8, 2020, in Spokane. (TYLER TJOMSLAND/Spokesman-Review)

Spokane’s police officers are four years overdue for a raise.

And its citizens are eight years overdue for independent oversight of the police department.

The fact that both of these issues are on the table when the Spokane Police Guild negotiates contracts with the city reflects one of the major roadblocks to police reform: Officer unions are empowered to limit, block and control reform efforts through collective bargaining.

And that feeds into a culture that is corrosive to public accountability – one that has stood in the way of civilian oversight and police accountability continually in Spokane. This is the first of three columns on potential ways to exert pressure for change on a culture that deeply resists it.

Way No. 1? Bust police unions. Or at least strip away their outsized authority to reject the wishes of citizens they are meant to serve.

Officer unions have incredible influence across the country, and we’re seeing calls to put them in check nationwide. Time and again, police unions block reform laws and policies they don’t like, protect officers guilty of misconduct, and try to undermine prosecutors who dare to bring charges against bad cops.

Their influence is nowhere greater than labor-friendly Washington, where it’s all but impossible to fire a cop and where an organization like the Guild – thanks to a combination of state law and a bottomless well of gall – can continually override the will of Spokane citizens and the letter of the law, as written in the city charter.

Changing that authority would be one important step toward correcting the balance of power between the people and police.

That would have to happen in Olympia, where lawmakers could propose legislation that would put more boundaries around what is considered a part of collective bargaining. It would likely require changing the Public Employees Collective Bargaining Act, a complicated state law that prohibits changing the hours, pay and working conditions of public employees represented by a union without bargaining over the changes.

Reform efforts continually run aground on the ability of police unions to apply “working conditions” objections to matters of citizen oversight, uses of force and other efforts to bring change.

The moment for legislation to change that seems ripe, given the uprising over the death of George Floyd and the sustained passion for reform we’re seeing right now.

And the typically cozy relationship between labor and Democrats may be less of an obstacle than in years past – as when proposals to make it easier to fire bad cops died in the face of police union opposition. Changing the law on collective bargaining has a kind of third-rail potential in our state politics, but there is a growing schism between police unions and the rest of the labor world that may alter that dynamic.

In other words, the time might be right for even a labor-friendly Legislature to start shifting authority back toward citizens. Andy Billig, the Senate Majority Leader from Spokane, said lawmakers are listening to the concerns of citizens and considering how to respond with legislation.

He anticipates a number of reform proposals in upcoming sessions – whether in a special session to deal with the financial emergency related to the pandemic, if there is one, or in regular sessions to follow – and that they may include ways to make it easier for communities to exercise independent oversight of police departments.

Recall that our city charter, reflecting the wishes of a supermajority of Spokane voters, calls for an ombudsman who independently investigates complaints against the police and produces public reports. We have neither of those now, thanks almost entirely to the Guild.

Their authority is presumed to be so absolute, city leaders simply surrender before the threat of Guild grievances, presuming that – even if they had the stomach to press a fight – the union would prevail at arbitration. And it has produced an incredible, corrosive hubris in the union.

This is not specific to Spokane. In the protests following the horror of the George Floyd killing, it has been striking to watch officers act in ways that could only come from a sick culture – striking a TV cameraman with a riot shield, say, or pushing down an elderly man and walking past him in formation as he bleeds on the sidewalk.

Police unions seem to fuel it. We saw evidence of that in the angry support from the Minneapolis police union for the cop who kneeled on George Floyd. We saw it in the support of the Buffalo police union for the cops who pushed down that man. We saw it as a huge crowd of Philadelphia cops applauded an officer charged with clubbing a retreating protester in the head. We heard it in the shrieking grievances of the head of the New York City police union, who held a press conference to command people to respect the police.

He was screaming at Americans from inside a culture that seems to believe that’s how you get respect.

By screaming. By commanding. By force.

I’m pro-union. I believe if more American workers were unionized, our gaping economic inequalities would be less gaping.

But these unions have become something else entirely. Lawmakers should begin taking back their excessive power at the first opportunity, even if it means sailing into opposition from political allies and campaign donors, so citizens may begin to truly hold them to account.