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By Steve Miletich and Sara Jean Green
The Seattle Times

SEATTLE - When Seattle's police guild and the city signed a contract in June, both sides said the union had accepted all 29 recommendations of a citizen panel to hold officers more accountable.
In the process, the guild won hefty pay increases for its officers, and the two sides appeared headed for smooth sailing.
But both sides reached agreement with a different understanding over what could be one of the most important provisions of the contract: whether the public has a right to the names of officers who have been disciplined.
The Police Department says it will err on the side of disclosing names. It cites language in the approved contract that says the city must only "consider" finding a reason to withhold the names of officers, instead of old wording that said the city "shall" look for a reason.
"It was a big deal" to get the change in wording, said Regina LaBelle, legal counsel for Mayor Greg Nickels.
But the Seattle Police Officers' Guild is just as insistent that the contract specifically protects the privacy of officers.
The dispute could lead to legal wrangling in what otherwise has been general agreement over major changes in the way disciplinary cases are handled. The changes include requiring the police chief to explain his reasons when he overturns disciplinary recommendations, and ratcheting up the punishment for officers who make false statements.
In all, Seattle's police chief and the rank and file will be subject to more scrutiny than at any time in the city's history. And the changes have been widely embraced in the community.
The contract was hard-fought. But after winning more pay, the guild accepted, with some tweaks, the 29 accountability recommendations made earlier this year by a panel Nickels appointed in response to public outcry over Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske's handling of internal discipline.
"It was a good deal we had no obligation to talk to them," said Sgt. Rich O'Neill, the guild's president. "Once they made it worth our while to talk, we were able to make a deal."
Contract wording
One of the key recommendations of the 11-member panel was to publicly disclose disciplinary records "to the maximum extent allowed by law."
The new contract makes it clear the Police Department must follow public-disclosure law when considering whether to withhold names of officers who have been disciplined, said Leo Poort, the department's legal adviser.
As a result, the Police Department will no longer "strain credibility" by withholding the names of disciplined officers on privacy grounds, Poort said. Only in rare cases, involving the intimate personal details of an officer's life, would that be allowed by law, he said.
Officers will be notified when the department plans to release their names so they have an opportunity to legally challenge the action, Poort said.
Names also could be withheld to protect a separate, ongoing investigation such as a grand-jury proceeding, he said.
O'Neill said he thinks the contract, even more than past ones, specifically bars the department from releasing the names of officers to protect their privacy.
The contract does contain a provision saying the release of disciplinary records should be done in a way to protect the privacy of officers.
But that provision also says the department must be consistent with the law, which would include recent court decisions requiring that the names of disciplined public employees be disclosed, Poort said. Privacy would cover only something such as a Social Security number, he said.
On the other hand, the department won't routinely hand out lists of disciplined officers because it isn't required to create such a record, Poort said.
That means the public and news media have to already know the name of an officer to ask for it. Or they could ask for types of cases, such as the names of officers punished for drunken-driving convictions.
But when the records are obtained, they now will be easier to decipher. In the past, they could be confusing, particularly when officer names were blacked out along with those of other people who are protected for privacy or safety reasons.
Bolstered oversight
Overall, the contract adds more layers to the police-review system, which was first fundamentally altered in 1999 when the city created the civilian-led Office of Professional Accountability (OPA) within the Police Department.
Now Kerlikowske will be required to publicly explain his "material reasons" for reversing disciplinary recommendations made by the OPA. Only highly personal information about officers won't be fully detailed.
And if the chief reverses a decision based on new, last-minute information provided by an officer, the case must be sent back for further investigation to the OPA.
As a further check, the OPA's civilian director, Kathryn Olson, will now sit in those final meetings with the chief so she'll have more say in the process.
O'Neill said more officers may choose to bypass the final meetings, instead choosing to accept the chief's punishment and then file an appeal for outside review.
The contract also creates a presumption that officers will be fired for dishonesty in their official duties, which is defined as intentionally providing false or incomplete information about material facts.
The department also has ways to extend the 180-day deadline to complete internal investigations, for example when witnesses are not available. Officers have previously avoided possible punishment when the deadline was missed.
OPA changes
Other changes give more power to the OPA's civilian auditor, former U.S. Attorney Kate Pflaumer. She will conduct closer reviews of ongoing investigations, and will pay special attention to training of internal investigators and their interviewing skills. She has been given clear authority to comment on outcomes of investigations.
Pflaumer also is to work more closely with Olson and the OPA Review Board, a civilian board created in 2002 that reviews OPA cases. All three must identify issues and bolster community relations.
The review board, which is appointed by the City Council, will grow from three members to seven and become the primary link to the public on police-accountability issues.
But, in a victory for the guild, which has long complained that the review board has overstepped its bounds, the board will no longer be allowed to conduct its own investigations of individual cases under rules clarified by the City Council, said Councilmember Tim Burgess, who heads the council's public-safety committee.
It was a leaked review-board report last year questioning Kerlikowske's handling of an internal investigation into a controversial drug arrest that led Nickels to appoint the citizen panel.
The board will be able to flag individual disciplinary cases as part of identifying general trends, Burgess said.
Peter Holmes, who served as the board's chairman until April and pushed for broad authority to examine cases, said the city wants the review board to do "cheerleading instead of true oversight."
Burgess said he thinks there will be plenty of oversight under all the changes.

Wire Service
 
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