Blue line in the sand

LAST WEEK, in a vote that meant nothing and everything for policing in Seattle, the Seattle Police Officers Guild gave a resounding thumbs-down to police chief Gil Kerlikowske. Of 1,209 union members, 1,014 returned ballots containing one simple question: Did officers have confidence in Kerlikowske's leadership? Nearly 90 percent—893—voted "no."

The usual spinning followed, with the mayor and City Council members voicing their confidence in Kerlikowske. The guild, also predictably, used the wide margin and heavy turnout to both pressure Kerlikowske and blast city leaders for allegedly treating its views lightly. But both sides agreed that nobody was actually calling for Kerlikowske's ouster.

Why bother, then? From an outsider's perspective, both the timing and the reason for the unprecedented balloting made little sense. The guild, in urging members to vote "no," focused on Kerlikowske's disciplining of officer Jess Pitts for his handling of Asian American jaywalkers in the International District last summer, an incident made publicly notorious by its racial overtones. In that case, Kerlikowske partially sided with the civilian Office of Professional Accountability (OPA), whose recommendations contradicted the internal police probe that cleared Pitts. Cops contrasted Pitt's public oral reprimand with the lack of sanctions given commanders who were held responsible for last year's Mardi Gras fiasco, charging that Kerlikowske regularly scapegoated beat officers but let management off the hook.

As for Mardi Gras, it's hard to argue with the guild. The decision to let police watch as thugs turned an alcohol-soaked party into a deadly civic catastrophe was clearly a premeditated political decision from on high—not an on-scene policing decision. There are few more appalling, and angering, scenarios for an average cop than to be forced by those in command to stand down and watch as entirely preventable violent crimes unfold a few feet away.

Conversely, it's hard to imagine a stupider decision in terms of community relations than the guild's using, as its contrasting incident, a case that many nonwhites interpreted as confirming (1) that there is another double standard locally—in how they are treated by the city's police compared to whites—and (2) that at least some Seattle police officers hold them in contempt, or at minimum look at them and think "suspect," solely because of their skin color. Why, of all cases, did the guild have to assert what some have invariably interpreted as a claim of officers' rights to be racists? On both sides, such rhetoric is highly emotional. But none of that was what actually fueled the no-confidence vote or rendered it far more significant than the symbolism claimed by both sides.

Later this year, the city will enter new contract negotiations with the guild. The talks are certain to be contentious, and the two central issues will be money and accountability. Last time around, community activists were just starting to make concerted noises about accountability, demanding things like elected civilian review boards. The city, after pleading helplessness because such mechanisms were impossible under officers' union contracts, did, in the end, win a compromise: starting the OPA. The Pitts ruling was the OPA's first high-profile disagreement with the department's internal conclusions. Officers treated creation of the OPA as a matter of life and death, even though the civilian head, Sam Pailca, reports to the police chief and has no independent investigative power. The city won the OPA concession through the time-honored method of all labor negotiations (and the Schell administration, too): It threw money at the problem, trading some extra income for officers for the new office.

This year, neither side is likely to willingly give an inch. Community activists, fueled by more racially charged shootings, want something more powerful and effective than the OPA. (Though there's disagreement as to what—various civilian accountability models launched in different cities have ranged from ineffective to disastrous.)

But while they want more, the guild wants less, and this time, there's no money to grease negotiations—no money, in fact, at all. The new mayor has managed to focus on only two major messages in his first months: that he wants more police accountability, and that there's no money for anything. This is a contract negotiation headed for trouble. The guild vote was an early shot: a message that no accountability mechanism will be acceptable, public opinion and politicians be damned. Cops stick together—they are certainly sticking up for Jess Pitts and, more importantly, working to make sure that no outside opinions "victimize" officers in the future. The guild's vote wasn't a no-confidence vote for Kerlikowske—it was a no-confidence vote in the OPA, the city, and the entire civilian world. So much for accountability.

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