Employer Acts Unlawfully In Changing Scope Of Civilian Oversight Of Police Department

In 1999, the Seattle, Washington City Council adopted the Office of Professional Accountability (OPA), which was granted an independent review authority to audit, examine, and review arrest records and contacts between Seattle police officers and civilians. The examinations were based upon citizen complaints, and were a reaction to the claims of certain citizen groups that they had been harassed by the police.

In 2000, the City and the Seattle Police Officers Guild agreed through the collective bargaining process to certain changes in OPA and Department-wide internal investigation procedures, and to a three-member panel review system for OPA decisions.

During the summer of 2005, it became evident that some civilian review supporters, unhappy with the Police Chief, OPA, and the Mayor, began to plan a revised City ordinance which would enlarge OPA’s authority by allowing review of “un-redacted” disciplinary files. When the City Council began to consider an ordinance allowing access to un-redacted files, the Guild’s attorney sent a letter to the City alerting them to rumors that the ordinance was being considered and promising that the Guild would file an unfair labor practice complaint if no bargaining took place.

In spite of the Guild’s threats, on May 30, 2006, the City Council passed a new ordinance that would allow the OPA review board to have access to un-redacted departmental and OPA files. The Guild responded with an unfair labor practice complaint alleging that the City had unilaterally changed a mandatory subject of bargaining.

An Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) for Washington’s Public Employment Relations Commission agreed. The ALJ concluded “that the ordinance impacted a mandatory subject for bargaining, and especially the potential for discipline of bargaining unit members. The topic of redacted files for the police review boards impacts closely on the working conditions of the employees, since there is a clear potential for scrutiny and discipline by their employer.”

The ALJ ordered the City “to rescind the un-redacted file and confidentiality/indemnification rules contained in the ordinance.”

Seattle Police Offices Guild v. City of Seattle, Decision 9957 (PECB 2008).

This article appears in the April 2008 issue