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UW finalizes contract with police union, limiting transparency, accountability

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‘Keep the pressure on’: UW BLM continues to protest for unmet demands

Protesters gather and listen to speakers outside the UW Police Department on June 28, 2020. UW Black Lives Matter, which organized the march, listed several demands to UW, including divesting from the Seattle Police Department completely and disarming the UWPD.

Despite calls for university administration to pause negotiations, the UW Police Department’s (UWPD) employee union contract has been finalized and will go into effect July 1, 2021, according to UW spokesperson Victor Balta.

Although the UW’s website originally listed an Aug. 6 update in which a “tentative” agreement was reached, Balta told The Daily Monday that the union had actually voted on the final contract a week before the update, thus completing the process.

UW Black Student Union’s (BSU) vice president of campus affairs Navon Morgan said the organization was unaware that the agreement was finalized and expressed frustration that, despite the BSU’s meeting with administration about issues of campus police, police union negotiations happened largely behind closed doors.

In the face of demands by BSU, UW BLM, and the broad Decriminalize UW coalition to disarm and divest from UWPD, President Ana Mari Cauce and other administrators have expressed support for re-imagining public safety. In a July board of regents meeting, regents pushed Cauce to meet student demands and take bolder steps.

“If you want to go that far, you’ve got me,” Cauce said. “Let’s actually bring in some experts and let’s have that discussion. I’m there.”

But the approval of the contract is a change in direction, locking in provisions that limit police transparency and accountability.

UW Seattle’s police force unionized in 2011. In addition to standard provisions regarding holidays and sick leave, their first contract also restricted the public’s access to disciplinary records and allowed for the destruction of records altogether. While most of these provisions carried over throughout the years, many of them intensified, creating a trend of less and less accountability.

Notable provisions in the new contract

  • Redaction of written reprimands — The new contract says the employer (i.e. the police department) “shall remove evidence of written reprimands” after 3 years. This is a shift from the softer language in the 2011 contract, which allowed for such files to be “reviewed for possible removal.”

  • Redaction of suspension records — Under the new contract, if an officer is suspended for misconduct, that record, under certain circumstances, can be scrubbed after five years. This is a shift from the original contract, which required the record to stand for seven years.

  • Police killings — Under the new contract, if an officer kills or injures someone, whether on or off duty, they are given 72 hours before having to make a formal statement. All prior contracts allowed for 48 hours.

  • Altered public records — If an individual requests public records “related to employee misconduct or alleged misconduct,” the name of the employee will be redacted, unless the name has already been made public. The 2011 contract had the same provision. 

  • Officer protest period — The new contract gives unionized officers a 10-day “protest period” if a public record is requested regarding them. This is six days longer than the original contract provided for.

  • Oversight committee — If the UW decides to convene an oversight committee, the union will be notified and allowed to negotiate its terms. This provision did not exist in prior contracts.

Community concerns

Student, faculty, and community organizers have asserted that pausing negotiations or rejecting the contract altogether is a prerequisite for making structural change regarding campus safety. Organizers have also complained about the lack of transparency and community engagement in the negotiation process itself. 

Given the provisions in the new contract, Morgan is convinced that UWPD is headed toward a police shooting. In a panel earlier this month, he expressed his fear that, if a shooting happens, UWPD has set up systems to ensure that officers aren’t held accountable. (Watch the full panel here.)

Law professor Brenda Williams helped organize the panel of students and faculty and is the outgoing chair of the Faculty Council on Multicultural Affairs. To her, the provision to scrub officers’ records of misconduct is especially concerning. According to Balta, a similar provision exists for “regular” UW employees. But many see police officers as inherently different from other employees.

“We need to have law enforcement who don’t have a history of misconduct if we’re going to hand them a gun with bullets that are paid for by state dollars,” Williams said. “You’ve got to be perfect. You just have to be.”

Williams noted that, as an attorney, any malpractice or bar complaints would not only stay on her record, but would be published in the state bar publication.

Another concerning aspect of the contract, Williams said, is the provision that anticipates the creation of an oversight board and allows the police union to negotiate its terms. 

“I don’t like that the union is coming to the table and asking how to structure something that doesn’t even exist yet,” Williams said. “They know that people will demand to have an oversight board, and now they want to control what that oversight board looks like.”

According to Balta, the UW would be legally obligated to bargain over an oversight committee regardless of the provision. Instead of creating a new oversight board, Balta said the UW is trying to “reinvigorate” the student safety advisory board — a group that “partners” with UWPD during meetings hosted by the police.

While BSU is disappointed in the contract, they aren’t waiting until the contract expires in 2023 to advocate for change, Morgan said. Instead, they’re looking for other avenues to limit UWPD’s campus presence and ways to rethink campus safety. Last week’s meeting with administration was productive, Morgan said, and organizers plan on attending the Sept. 9 board of regents meeting, where Cauce is expected to formally respond to student demands.

Reach reporter Claudia Yaw at Twitter: @YawClaudia

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