The Spokane City Council resoundingly shot down a controversial new contract with the union that represents Spokane police officers on Monday.
Amid public outcry over police accountability and racial injustice in Spokane and across the nation, the Spokane City Council unanimously voted down a proposed labor agreement with the Spokane Police Guild that council members felt failed to properly implement civilian oversight of the Spokane Police Department.
“Without that, we can’t get where we need to go,” said City Council President Breean Beggs.
The rejected contract – proposed earlier this month after years of failed negotiations – covered 2017 through 2020. Though the bulk of it is retroactive, the agreement would set the framework for the next round of negotiations, which would have occurred shortly after the City Council’s approval of Monday’s proposal.
Instead, the city and police union will renegotiate a deal or land in arbitration.
Scores of citizens called into the City Council meeting, held remotely due to the coronavirus, to urge the council to turn down the proposal. Thousands emailed the City Council ahead of Monday’s vote.
The crux of the debate over the proposed Police Guild contract was its impact on independent oversight of the department.
Several City Council members and reform advocates argued that the proposal, like the contract before it, failed to empower the Office of the Spokane Police Ombudsman with the authority it is granted under city law.
The proposed contract does not explicitly authorize the ombudsman – the civilian watchdog role currently filled by Bart Logue – to independently investigate complaints against police on his own accord, or publish “closing reports” that detail his opinion on cases of alleged misconduct.
“We never get to know really the truth of what the ombudsman thinks happened in any particular case,” Beggs said.
In 2013, nearly 70% of voters approved a city charter amendment codifying the ombudsman’s authority, but it has not been matched in the guild contract – potentially opening the door for the union to file a grievance if the ombudsman exercises it.
The City Council does not negotiate the guild contract. The proposal was negotiated by Mayor Nadine Woodward, who urged the council to approve it in a statement ahead of Monday’s vote. Spokane Police Chief Craig Meidl also backed the deal in a statement Monday, saying the department “is a premier law enforcement agency that has made lasting changes. And we only continue to get better.”
Woodward warned that a vote against the contract could ultimately cost the taxpayers more money, while losing out on the improvements to police oversight that are included in the proposal.
The contract proposal was finalized prior to the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis that sparked national outrage over police brutality and systemic racism.
But the proposal – which already was likely to meet resistance from the council – took on new weight in light of the protests in Spokane and elsewhere.
Councilwoman Betsy Wilkerson said she did not want Spokane “to be the next hashtag on the news,” and noted that this is a time where many Black voices are being heard for the first time.
“As a Black woman, I hear you, I see you, and I feel your pain,” Wilkerson said.
Logue, the ombudsman, joined others in laying heavy criticism on the proposal ahead of the vote, saying it “infringed on the independence” of his office.
In a petition posted to its Facebook page, the Spokane Police Guild claimed that the department has trouble hiring officers due to a perceived lack of support from the City Council and low officer salaries relative to other cities.
The Guild said the proposed contract was “objectively fair,” and would raise officer pay while sending a message “that the employees and the city are a team working together for a better community.”
Though it fell short of what several council members had hoped for, the proposal expanded the ombudsman’s power in several ways compared to the former agreement. It empowered the assistant ombudsman with the same authority as the ombudsman and ensured his office’s access to materials related to internal investigations.
But the deal also included language that would allow the union to file a grievance in an attempt to block a candidate for ombudsman or the ombudsman commission, or have one removed from the job if he or she violates their authority.
Councilman Michael Cathcart regularly advocates for more officers to be hired, but is also a proponent of independent civilian oversight. He said that city residents “have said that they want an independent police ombudsman, they want him to have the ability to issue closing reports, to be separate from internal affairs, to truly be independent.”
He described his vote against the deal as “pursuing the path that the people wanted.”
Several council members faced the same conundrum. A yes vote would be an acceptance of a contract that does not comply with the city charter.
A no-vote would either lead the two sides back into negotiations or, potentially, into binding arbitration by an independent third party. Beggs warned earlier this month that an arbitrator could award the guild a significant pay raises compared to what they received under the negotiated deal.
The compensation included in the agreement was not a major sticking point for the council. The deal provided officers with cost of living raises of 2.25% in 2017 and 3% each in 2018, 2019, and 2020, totaling $6.2 million.
Despite turning down the contract, several members lamented the effect Monday’s vote would have on the city’s officers.
“I’m sorry and saddened that some very smart and caring grownups can not figure out this agreement so you can get those paychecks that are owed to you,” said Councilwoman Candace Mumm.
Woodward received the guild’s endorsement in her race for mayor last year and pledged soon after she took office to end the years-long stalemate.
Woodward’s administration sought to couch the deal as coming amid a stretch of increased police accountability within the Spokane Police Department, including the implementation of dozens of recommendations following a Department of Justice audit in 2014.
Adam Shanks can be reached at (509) 459-5136 or email@example.com