Police Discipline Reversals Explained: ‘Horse-Trading,’ Futile Talks and Which Chief Did What

As revealed yesterday, Mayor Ed Murray and his staff are still short on answers as to what exactly happened with the police discipline cases that resulted in six reversals by Interim Chief Harry Bailey and an ensuing controversy that has damaged the mayor’s reputation. But several sources familiar with the details of what transpired can explain much, including the “horse-trading” talks, as one source puts it, that ultimately led to the reversals.

Murray is right in one respect, according to the sources: The police department initially reviewed the six cases in the previous administration, when Jim Pugel was serving as interim chief. But it is dubious that Pugel agreed to the reversals. City Attorney Pete Holmes, whose office sat in on talks related to the matter, says: “The only settlements I know of are the ones Chief Bailey signed in February.”

Back in the fall, when Pugel was in the chief’s office, SPD was facing a stack of discipline appeals that had yet to be brought before one of the two bodies charged with hearing them: The Public Safety Civil Service Commission, which hears cases from all types of civil servants, and whose proceedings are public; and the Discipline Review Board, a three-member panel that includes an arbitrator and department and union officials. The review board conducts its hearings away from public view, and nobody outside SPD, not even a complainant who has alleged abuse by an officer, is required to be notified of its findings.

Both bodies conduct their proceedings like a trial. There is sworn testimony and evidence presented. It takes a lot of time and preparation. To avoid that, the police department and the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild, which often res presents officers in appeals, sometimes engage in settlement talks. You can think of this like plea bargain negotiations engaged in by prosecutors and defense attorneys before a trial.

This complicated and often behind-closed-door appeals process—which happens outside the purview of the Office of Public Accountability--sparked concern from several Seattle City Council members at a briefing by mayoral and police staff yesterday. “It is really corrupting the intent of the OPA to be transparent,” said Councilmember Nick Licata. The city created the civilian-headed OPA in 1999 precisely because of a widespread feeling that there needed to be more public oversight of police discipline.

Even the council briefing, however, did not go into the oddest aspect of the six reversals. They were part of a larger group of appeals cases—how many is still unclear—that were bundled together for review. According to two sources informed about the matter, this bundling happened as part of a larger negotiation between SPD and the union that had nothing to do with the specific cases. Rather, in exchange for considering lesser punishments in these cases, the department wanted SPOG to agree to a clear set of guidelines on how to handle cases involving officers convicted of DUIs.

Every year, a number of officers are found to be driving while drunk, sometimes in their police cars and not for the first time. See for instance this June OPA report that talks about two cases of officer DUIs. One officer was fired. Another, despite being involved not only in a DUI but a hit-and-run, was merely suspended for five days.

It’s perhaps no wonder that SPD wanted consistency. But whether it made sense to bring this in as a bargaining chip in unrelated appeals is another matter. This is the “horse-trading” of which one source speaks. Whether this practice happened on other occasions is unclear.

In any case, last September, members of SPD, SPOG and the City Attorney’s office sat down for a day-long negotiating session on the bundled cases. And here’s a crucial point that undermines the mayor’s attempt to cast the six reversals as Pugel’s call: The grueling session got nowhere. “None of the cases settled,” Holmes says.

Yet, as recently as yesterday, deputy mayor Hyeok Kim was still suggesting that the agreement happened under Pugel’s watch. Her office simply couldn’t find the documentation that backed that up, she told council members. It is telling that the mayor has not brought forward Pugel, who still works for the police department, to explain.

In one sense, it may not matter whether Pugel or Bailey made the settlement decisions. The controversy has shone a light on the need to reform the appeals process, and the mayor has now committed himself to doing that. But like any scandal, the matter has become not only about the event that sparked it, but the response of those trying to make it go away. In attempting to shift blame to a previous administration and its police chief, Murray raises questions about his own credibility.

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