City & Police Union Currently Operating Under Expired Contract
DELAY: City Manager Says COVID Has Prolonged Contract Negotiations with OPD Union
By Cody Neuenschwander
Published July 31
The city of Olympia’s contract negotiations with one of the unions representing Olympia police officers has stretched into its eighth month, as conversations regarding police accountability continue.
Currently, the Olympia Police Guild and the city are still operating under a contract that expired at the end of 2019. City Manager Jay Burney said the COVID-19 pandemic is to blame for prolonged negotiations, and that the city and union are continuing to operate under the current contract until a new agreement can be reached.
“Some things are hard to do over Zoom calls, and so that’s been the issue,” Burney said.
Police union contracts have been increasingly blamed in the U.S. for stonewalling investigations into police misconduct. Experts and legal minds increasingly agree the contracts often host a glut of provisions protecting police officers who engage in misconduct.
Burney declined to comment on how the city ensures any provisions that have been linked to hindering investigations of misconduct don’t appear in the final contract.
“One of the agreements that we have when we’re in the middle of negotiations is we don’t talk about specifics about what we might be negotiating when we’re in the middle of negotiations,” he said.
Representatives from both unions representing Olympia police officers — the Police Guild and the Sergeant’s Association — didn’t respond to requests for interviews with Beat: Olympia Police Accountability Project.
When asked if the city is mindful of the current debates surrounding police union contracts, Burney said: “I take into account everything that’s at our disposal when we negotiate contracts. So … we don’t walk in with predisposed opinions about things. We have things we think are important to us as management. Those are issues around things like salary, benefits, obviously we care about community safety, but you know, it’s really not driven based on what’s happening in the media. That doesn’t drive our negotiations strategy.”
Seattle-based attorney David Perez is a partner at the law firm Perkins Coie and one of the lead attorneys in an ongoing suit Black Lives Matter Seattle-King County filed in protest of the city’s use of tear gas during protests.
Perez, during an interview with Beat: Olympia Police Accountability Project, said there are a number of things one can look out for in a police union contract that might hinder police accountability. While basing his findings on knowledge of the Seattle Police Guild, Perez said he found it’s not uncommon to find similar provisions in other departments’ union contracts.
One piece of advice Perez gave was to see if an oversight agency was in place to watch over any internal investigations. Current contracts between Olympia and police unions don’t include mention of independent third parties to ensure non-bias during an investigation.
The city allocated funds during the most recent round of budget negotiations to hire a police auditor — a position that existed roughly a decade ago, but was cut during the Great Recession. Burney said the position, which is expected to be filled again, would consist of an individual independent of the police department.
There has been additional talk among city council members toward forming a Human Rights Commission. To enhance an oversight committee’s effectiveness, it ought to have the ability to subpoena and interview witnesses, Perez said.
Many union contracts include strict time tables of when investigations must be conducted in order for any discipline to follow through. The Olympia Police Guild and Sergeants Association contracts both state the unions recognize “the need to clarify citizen inquiries and complaints in a timely fashion” but don’t include specifics beyond that, other than outlining a specific timetable for other various elements of the internal investigation. The investigation itself, however, doesn’t fall into a specific timetable.
Another issue common in contracts Perez takes issue with is a union’s ability to select, at least in part, an arbitrator or representation on a panel of arbitrators to preside over a hearing.
“That doesn’t make any sense. … When I file a case, I don’t get to choose my judge,” he said.
Something similar appears in both union contracts’ sections outlining officer grievances. Officers may file grievances and start a mediation process if discipline results in a loss of pay. Both of Olympia’s police union contracts outline the process of selecting an arbitrator by both parties taking turns striking a name from a list of seven generated arbitrators. A coin toss determines which party strikes the first name.
Perez also said he believes hearings should take place in a public setting, as they would during any criminal matter. The investigation process outlined in Olympia’s police union contracts discusses interviews conducted during an internal investigation, which is done behind closed doors. There can be no “off the record” questions during the interviews. Burney said investigatory findings are checked by a contracted attorney.
Perez said he doesn’t believe police unions should, in general, have bargaining power over issues involving accountability.
“[Police] have the power to arrest people,” Perez said. “… They have the power to use, at times, deadly force. For them to be able to bargain over the supervision of these powers is an astounding, astounding fact.”