Police Guild Contract Signing?

The members of the City of Spokane City Council need to hear from us. On next Monday evening, the June 15th Council meeting. The Council is supposed to vote on a new contract with the Spokane Police Guild (i.e. the Police Union). Neither for the union, nor for the mayor, Nadine Woodward, whom the union endorsed, nor for the City Council could there be a more glaring time for this contract to come up. 

The entire country has been roiling for two weeks in protests over the cold-blooded, extra-judicial killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis policeman, an event captured in gruesome detail on a widely viewed video. Now the Spokane City Council faces a yes or no choice on a contract put forward by the police union and the mayor they helped elect.

To be fair, the City of Spokane police under Chief Meidl did well in interacting with peaceful protesters and dealing with the few agitators who tried to provoke riots during the last two weeks. They deserve praise for their efforts overall. The Spokane police have been working without a contract for three years. Many agree they deserve the raise that is part of the contract that comes up for a vote Monday night. 

BUT: What justifies a contract that grants the Spokane Police Guild more autonomy and less oversight? This is a city with a history. From Daniel Walters Inlander article from June 9th (well worth reading):

In 2006, [Otto] Zehm, a mentally disabled janitor, walked into a Spokane Zip Trip to get a Snickers, only to be tased, beaten and hogtied by Spokane Police officers. He died, and police officers lied about it. The officer who struck Zehm 13 times with his signature ironwood baton was sent to prison — though not before 50 officers in the courtroom, including future Police Chief Craig Meidl, stood up and saluted the convicted officer. 

That salute is a sickening image in an era where we are forced to reckon with video images of multiple police killings nationwide over succeeding years. We cannot know what was in the minds of those 50 fellow Police Guild (union) members as they saluted their convicted compatriot, but the symbolism of the image remains. Guild members stand in solidarity–regardless. That salute was a warning to the citizens of Spokane that resonates today.

It should escape no one that Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich is busy defending his choice to offer a course this fall, part of the message of which is the “warrior mentality,” desensitization to killing, and solidarity after the event. (for more on that: “Killology” and the Sheriff) What does this say about the overall law enforcement culture in the county and the city at its center?

Daniel Walters adds: 

…70 percent of Spokane voters supported an ordinance in February of 2013 to etch the ombudsman’s right to conduct independent investigations into city law, that power has remained at the mercy of the Police Guild’s contract.

The contract on the table next Monday at the City Council, negotiated out of the public eye between representatives of the Police Guild and the mayor the Guild helped elect, Mayor Woodward, (and her conservative predecessor, Mayor Condon) offers the Police Guild additional control over the ombudsman, the very existence of whom seems to rankle the Guild. The Guild (the union) refusing to cooperate with the Police Ombudsman is a persistent issue (See The Ombudsman & the Police Union). Now with Woodward apparently on board the union wants to diminish the autonomy and reach of the police ombudsman, an office the citizens overwhelmingly voted to establish–and right when the power and insularity of police unions is in the spotlight.

Even Councilman Michael Cathcart, a conservative and definitely a “law and order” sort of guy, is quoted by the Spokesman, “My struggle is I just don’t know how I could vote for a contract that in my opinion is outright noncompliant with the city charter,”

Daniel Walters writes in the Inlander article: “Cathcart says he wishes he could separate the financial piece from the oversight piece — granting the police department their long-overdue raises without approving the limitations on the ombudsman.”

That raises a legitimate question: Why is control of the ombudsman part of the negotiation of the police union contract at all? 

We understand the contract to be presented to the City Council on Monday is the result of three years of negotiations between the Guild and representatives of two conservative mayors leading the executive branch of city government. We might even agree that a raise is overdue. But this is not the time to weaken police oversight. 

Take this opportunity today to learn who represents you on the City Council and send them an email comment. Here’s the link for that: https://my.spokanecity.org/citycouncil/members/ They need constituents to speak up in defense of the oversight the voters endorsed in 2013. 

Keep to the high ground,

P.S. I keep returning to the image of 50 Spokane police officers in the courtroom saluting the convicted officer responsible for the death of Otto Zehm. The symbolism of that act is distressing. 

P.P.S. For more insight, check out the Fresh Air podcast, “Rethinking American Policing,” which aired Wednesday, June 10.

P.P.P.S. Even the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal, not exactly a left wing newspaper, has weighed in with an opinion piece, “The Problem with Police Unions.” A quote from that piece that is particularly pertinent to our situation in Spokane: “The AFL-CIO’s legendary chief George Meany once said ‘it is impossible to bargain collectively with the government.’ Collective bargaining in business is adversarial. But public unions sit on both sides of the bargaining table since they help elect the politicians with whom they negotiate.” (the bold is mine)

P.P.P.P.S. In the course of writing this piece I visited the Spokane Police Guild website. For a group that advertises “Serving the City of Spokane Washington” on their homepage, it seemed more than a little odd to read, “Access for the site is open to Spokane Police Guild members only.” The deliberations of the City Council are open to public view, but the police negotiate as a secret society opaque to us, the citizens.