What to Know about the Looming SPOG Contract with Amy Sundberg and Shannon Cheng
Release Date: 11/28/2023
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On this Tuesday topical show, special guest host Shannon Cheng and fellow co-organizer with People Power Washington, Amy Sundberg, delve into everything they wish people knew about the looming Seattle Police Officers Guild (SPOG) contract.
The conversation starts by outlining the outsize control the SPOG contract has on the City of Seattle’s police accountability system, the City budget, and efforts to civilianize jobs that don’t require an armed response. Amy and Shannon then break down a soon-to-be-considered Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the City and SPOG - what each side gets, its fiscal impacts, whether the agreement will have any effect on SPD understaffing, and why the already-disappointing dual dispatch pilot is worse than they thought.
Next, the two non-labor lawyers try to explain why any attempt to offload roles from an overworked police department entails lengthy negotiation and sign off from SPOG, how SPD continues to be understaffed despite best efforts to counter attrition, and what might happen if City electeds stood up to the police guild. Finally, in anticipation of a full SPOG contract coming out sometime in the next year, they discuss why the MOU is a bad omen of what is to come, how the process is designed to exclude public input, the difference between police guilds and labor unions, a stalled attempt at a state legislative solution, what Councilmember Mosqueda stepping down from the Labor Relations Policy Committee means - and wrap up with Amy giving Shannon a powerful pep talk!
As always, a full text transcript of the show is available below and at officialhacksandwonks.com.
Amy Sundberg is the publisher of Notes from the Emerald City, a weekly newsletter on Seattle politics and policy with a particular focus on public safety, police accountability, and the criminal legal system. She also writes about public safety for The Urbanist. She organizes with Seattle Solidarity Budget and People Power Washington. In addition, she writes science fiction and fantasy, with a new novel, TO TRAVEL THE STARS, a retelling of Pride and Prejudice set in space, available now. She is particularly fond of Seattle’s parks, where she can often be found walking her little dog.
Shannon Cheng is the producer of Hacks & Wonks and new to being in front of the mic rather than behind the scenes. She organizes for equitable public safety in Seattle and King County with People Power Washington and for state-wide policies to reduce police violence and increase accountability with the Washington Coalition for Police Accountability. She also works on computational lighting technology, strives to be a better orienteer, and enjoys exploring the world in an adventure truck with her husband and her cat.
“City Council Agrees to Pay Cops Double Time for Working Special Events” by Ashley Nerbovig from The Stranger
“Will Seattle Pay SPOG a Premium to Let Others Help SPD with its Staffing Woes?” by Amy Sundberg from Notes from the Emerald City
“Harrell’s Dual-Responder Proposal Would Fail to Civilianize Crisis Response” by Amy Sundberg from The Urbanist
Labor Relations in the City of Seattle | Seattle City Council Central Staff
Labor Relations Policy Committee | City of Seattle Human Resources
“Firefighters’ Tentative Contract Could be Bad News for Other City Workers Seeking Pay Increases” by Erica C. Barnett from PubliCola
“Police Unions: What to Know and Why They Don’t Belong in the Labor Movement” by Kim Kelly for Teen Vogue
“Seattle Police Officers Guild expelled from King County’s largest labor council” by Elise Takahama from The Seattle Times
SB 5134 - 2021-22 | Enhancing public trust and confidence in law enforcement and strengthening law enforcement accountability for general authority Washington peace officers, excluding department of fish and wildlife officers.
SB 5677 - 2021-22 | Enhancing public trust and confidence in law enforcement and strengthening law enforcement accountability, by specifying required practices for complaints, investigations, discipline, and disciplinary appeals for serious misconduct.
[00:00:00] Crystal Fincher: Welcome to Hacks & Wonks. I'm Crystal Fincher, and I'm a political consultant and your host. On this show, we talk with policy wonks and political hacks to gather insight into local politics and policy in Washington state through the lens of those doing the work with behind-the-scenes perspectives on what's happening, why it's happening, and what you can do about it. Be sure to subscribe to the podcast to get the full versions of our Friday week-in-review show and our Tuesday topical show delivered to your podcast feed. If you like us, the most helpful thing you can do is leave a review wherever you listen to Hacks & Wonks. Full transcripts and resources referenced in the show are always available at officialhacksandwonks.com and in our episode notes.
[00:00:52] Shannon Cheng: Hello everyone! This is Shannon Cheng, producer of Hacks & Wonks. You have me again today as your special guest host. Today, I'm super excited to have a fellow co-organizer with People Power Washington with me, Amy Sundberg, who also writes Notes from the Emerald City. And we were wanting to have a conversation about the Seattle police contract negotiations as they relate to the Seattle Police Officers Guild, or SPOG. We're hoping to break down what is a dense but very important topic for our listeners. Amy, do you have any thoughts on this before we get started?
[00:01:29] Amy Sundberg: Yeah, I mean, I think it's really important whenever we talk about police guilds that we make the distinction that just because we might be being critical about police unions, police guilds - that in general, we are very supportive of labor and that there are many reasons why police guilds are different than all other labor that hopefully we'll have a chance to get into later in this episode. But until then, just to be clear - in general, we support workers' rights, we support workers organizing for better conditions in the workplace, and that is not a negotiable part of our philosophy.
[00:02:06] Shannon Cheng: Yes, 100% - completely agree. We in no way are saying that workers' rights are not important. They absolutely are. Police are entitled to have living wages, but there are also issues that crop up with the way that negotiations happen in Washington state that sometimes are counter to other goals that we have as a society.
So before we jump in, I wanna talk about what impact does the police contract have in the City of Seattle? So one aspect that I've been following super closely for the last many years is that the current police accountability system that we have here in Seattle - you may have heard of it before, it's composed of three independent bodies. There's the OPA or the Office of Police Accountability, the OIG or Office of Inspector General, and the CPC, the Community Police Commission. This three-body accountability structure - the powers that they have are completely governed by what the SPOG contract says that they have. And you may have heard that we had a strong accountability ordinance passed back in 2017 - establishing these bodies and giving them authority. Yet the following year in 2018, we passed a SPOG contract that rolled back a lot of those accountability provisions. So oftentimes I hear community members frustrated that we aren't able to hold an SPD officer accountable for something egregious that has happened. And it all goes back to the accountability system and what has been written in the SPOG contract.
[00:03:44] Amy Sundberg: I would also just say that this is one of the reasons that police guilds are different from other unions - is because they are currently negotiating these sorts of accountability provisions in their contracts. And they're the only workers that are negotiating for the right to potentially kill other people, right? They're armed. And so it's a different matter because of the stakes involved.
[00:04:09] Shannon Cheng: Yes, a very big difference. I used to be a union member of Unite Here Local 8 - I worked at a restaurant. And we had accountability measures in our contract, but it was for things like if I didn't charge a customer for a bread basket. And the consequences of me not charging $1.95 for the company I work for is very different than an officer using excessive deadly force to kill a community member. So stakes are completely different.
So beyond the accountability system, the SPOG contract also has a huge impact on city funding and what the City budget looks like every year. We did an episode recently about the budget and how the police have an outsize portion of that - do you wanna talk a little bit more about that, Amy?
[00:04:57] Amy Sundberg: Yeah, so the contract will determine how much money is flowing into SPD. And right now, SPD gets about a quarter of our general fund - so that's the part of the budget that can be allocated to anything that isn't already tied up via statute. So a quarter of the general fund, which is a significant amount of the money that we have available to us as a city. And the question always is - Is that number gonna grow? And how much of the general fund are we as a city comfortable with SPD taking up? That is a question that is decided basically in this contract.
[00:05:32] Shannon Cheng: Yeah, 'cause the contract sets the pay rates and raises that SPD will receive. And I think we've heard from a lot of other city unions that are also currently bargaining their contracts that there's this issue that a lot of them are being offered raises that aren't keeping up with the cost of living. For example, the Firefighters, the Coalition of City Unions. So it will be interesting to observe and see, when the eventual SPOG contract comes out, what kind of raises do they get and how do they compare to other city workers?
The final thing that I think the police contract holds a lot of power over is something that we know is extremely popular in the city. When we've done poll after poll, people really want to see an alternate crisis response available to community members. We know that police are not the best at deescalating crisis response situations. And sometimes it's very harmful - and actually escalates - and has led to deaths of community members. So we've been struggling as a city to stand up some kind of alternate crisis response since the summer of 2020. And unfortunately the SPOG contract has been a huge obstacle in the way of that. Could you explain that more for us, Amy?
[00:06:44] Amy Sundberg: Yeah, I would say first of all, that definitely this alternate emergency crisis response is a big part of this, but the contract stands in the way of civilianization in general overall. So this is one big piece of that, but it also means that if there are jobs that we feel like should be done by civilians who are not armed - besides crisis response - that also gets decided in the contract. So I do think that's important to talk about.
[00:07:10] Shannon Cheng: So that's why keeping an eye on this police contract is really important. It really does hold the key to so many facets of the change that we want to see in our city.
Let's now talk about what's been happening more recently. During the Seattle budget process, we learned that the City had come to a possible temporary agreement with SPOG, which they call an MOU, or a Memorandum of Understanding. To be clear, this is not the final full contract that we do expect to see with SPOG eventually, and that we've been waiting for for several years now. The previous contract expired at the end of 2020, and they have been in negotiations for about three years at this time. So this MOU came out. It was meant to address what some electeds are calling "emergent needs" of the city. And they had to do this during the budget process because it had budget implications that needed to be approved. Do you want to tell us a little bit about what's in this MOU?
[00:08:16] Amy Sundberg: Yes, I would love to. I'm glad that you emphasized this is different than the actual SPOG contract. It is temporary, and it is to address these "emergent needs," so to speak. So it does have an expiry date of the beginning of January of 2026. So I just want to get that out there first.
But the MOU accomplishes three main things for the City, and then we'll talk about what it gives SPOG. So the three main things that it accomplishes for the City are - first of all, it would allow the City flexibility to sometimes use parking enforcement officers or other civilians to staff special events. They certainly wouldn't be the only people staffing special events, but perhaps they could do things like traffic control that don't really require a sworn armed officer to do. It would allow the City to use park rangers at parks outside of downtown. Right now, they have an agreement that park rangers can only be used in downtown parks. But last year, they started a huge expansion of the Park Ranger program, so now they have a lot more park rangers - or they're in the process of hiring them - and would like to be able to expand to use them at all the parks in the city.
And the third thing it would do is allow the City to implement its new dual dispatch emergency alternative response program. Basically, the pilot just launched this past October. And it turns out that if this MOU is not approved - which it is not currently signed yet - it's not actually true dual dispatch yet, from my understanding. What was said in all of the press briefings and all of the communications is that how this program is supposed to work is that there's dual dispatch, so that means that SPD will go out at the same time as the alternative responders - CARE responders, I'm gonna call them. They go out at the same time. But apparently right now, they're not actually allowed to be dispatched at the same time because this MOU hasn't been approved. So the police have to go first, and then they can request to have an alternate CARE responder team come out after they arrive. So that is not how I understood this was going to work, and if this MOU is approved, then it will be able to work the way it's been described previously.
[00:10:38] Shannon Cheng: Okay, so there's a difference between what we've seen from press releases and press briefings about this new dual dispatch pilot within the CARE department to what is actually possible right now without this MOU.
[00:10:53] Amy Sundberg: Yeah, and my guess - and this is me guessing, to be clear - my guess is that, of course, people involved knew that this MOU was being developed, knew that this agreement was being developed. And so when they launched the pilot, they explained how it was gonna work if this MOU was signed, even though it hadn't been signed yet - in maybe a burst of hope that that's how it would turn out. As well, I imagine, because of - you're not allowed to talk about things that are going on in negotiations at the labor table, so they probably weren't allowed to talk about it. And instead of getting into the nitty-gritty of it and confusing people, that they might have decided - for simplicity's sake - explain it the way they did. But, you know, of course, now we know that that wasn't entirely accurate.
[00:11:38] Shannon Cheng: Okay, so basically, what we had seen in the past that was all this glowing announcement about this new dual dispatch pilot should have a giant big asterisk next to it because they had not actually completed what needed to be done to be able to launch it in the way that they were talking about it.
I do wanna eventually dig deeper into what the MOU specifically says about the dual dispatch, but first, we've talked about what the City is getting out of this agreement. And to be clear, even though this isn't the full contract, this is something that was negotiated with SPOG. And so I think that it's important for us to look at because it gives us a little hint as to how negotiations with SPOG are going. So we've heard what the City is getting. So what is SPOG getting out of this negotiation?
[00:12:21] Amy Sundberg: Yeah, so what they have now in the MOU is that they want to give officers who volunteer to staff special events a special additional bonus. So it would be $225 bonus for each special event shift that they volunteer to do. And that's in addition to overtime. So what The Stranger reported, which I actually think is a really helpful way to think about it, is that this bonus basically means that officers will be getting paid double time for any shifts that they work - that they volunteered for - for special events. Normally, overtime is time and a half. So instead of time and a half, they're getting double time. However, if they finally reach an agreement on the full SPOG contract, the bonus would not necessarily increase - so it's not tied to their current wages.
[00:13:15] Shannon Cheng: Okay, so let me get this right. We are giving SPOG extra bonuses to work shifts they already get paid overtime for. And in exchange, they are letting us let them work less at some of these special events. Is that a fair characterization?
[00:13:33] Amy Sundberg: I mean, possibly. It's a little bit - to be honest, I'll be interested to see how it plays out because I don't know how much less they actually will end up working. So we might just be paying more to get the same thing, or we might be paying more for them to work less so that parking enforcement officers can take a few of their jobs. It's unclear how this will work out in practice.
[00:13:59] Shannon Cheng: Yeah, I've heard some of the discussion of this. We all know, or we've been told over and over again from many quarters, that SPD is very understaffed, that the officers are overworked, that people are upset that response times are slow - and everybody blames the fact that there aren't enough officers to do the amount of work that is out there for them. So part of trying to offer these special event shift bonuses is that right now for these shifts, when they ask people to volunteer - if they don't get enough volunteers, my understanding is that they go by seniority. And so maybe some of the newer officers are made to work these extra shifts, thereby making them even more overworked than they already are. So some of the thinking behind this is that if they offer this bonus to sweeten the deal in terms of working these extra shifts, that perhaps some of the higher senior-ranked officers would be willing to take some of these volunteer shifts and thereby spread the workload out better across SPD. But this doesn't actually do anything to help with the overall understaffing issue, right? We still have the same number of officers doing the same amount of work, unless they do agree to let some of these other parking enforcement officers take over some of the shifts.
[00:15:23] Amy Sundberg: Right, and unless there are actually shifts available for those parking enforcement officers to take after whoever has volunteered has volunteered. So it kind of depends how they set it up. I will say, I think what you said is exactly what the City and SPD has been saying - I think that's a very accurate characterization. But I've also heard from other sources that special event shifts are actually pretty popular among officers and that it's a nice way to make extra money potentially - because it is paid overtime, and now double time. So that's why I'm not really sure how this is gonna play out in practice.
And just to talk about the overall impact of what offering this bonus does to the budget - because this was just passed in our 2024 budget now. This Memorandum of Understanding would start October 1st, 2023. And like I said, it would go to the beginning of January 2026. And we are paying $4.5 million - that would cover from October of this year 'til the end of next year. And then we'll be paying another $3.6 million for 2025 to cover these special event bonuses. So altogether, it's a little more than $8 million for a little bit over two years of bonuses. For at least this next year, the money came from a reserve fund. But again, this is $4.5 million that is being spent on these bonuses instead of on any other pressing needs that the city might have. Just to name one, we gave a big cut to mental health services in tiny home villages. And if those tiny home villages don't have these services, certain people who have more acute needs cannot live there. So it's gonna really impact who is able to live in a tiny home village going forward. So that is one thing that we cut in 2024 - we have much less money for that now. Obviously, there are lots of needs in the city though, so that's just one example.
[00:17:24] Shannon Cheng: That's really good for us to understand - what is a concrete example of what we're giving up in order to give these bonuses to the police officer. So this really matters because we're in a time of budget shortfalls, both current and upcoming. We're being told that SPD is overworked, and yet we're in this state where we're being asked to pay SPOG more money to maybe do less work and accept help for tasks that they said they're not good at. And I'm talking about this dual dispatch co-responder program.
So why don't we turn to that and get a little bit more into the weeds and delve into what is problematic about how this dual dispatch pilot is set up. I think there's been a lot of talk about the alternate crisis response that we've been trying to set up in the city. I think it's evolved a lot over time. And something that I want people to appreciate about all this is that all this talk fundamentally doesn't matter unless we have the agreement of SPOG - that they will accept how we want to do things. And this MOU is the first time that I have seen - spelled out - some of the details of what our dual dispatch program could look like. Amy, I know you've been following this for a very long time. I think you've been at pretty much every meeting that's been about this topic. And so - of people in the world who I think would know how we've ended up at this dual dispatch program, you could tell us about that whole history. So I will turn it to you.
[00:19:04] Amy Sundberg: Yeah, I can. And I will say, I wrote an article about this for The Urbanist, I think, a couple of months ago. We'll link to it in the show notes. I will say it was a very hard piece to write because I have been following this since 2020 in all of its little details. And then I was trying to boil it down into a thousand words - explaining to someone who maybe knew very little about this - what exactly had been going on for the past three or so years. I do recommend you check that out.
But it has been a very frustrating process, I will say. We started talking about some kind of alternative crisis response in summer of 2020 because of the George Floyd protests. And we had a few, I would say, champions on the city council who really wanted to see this happen. So it wasn't that there was nobody advocating for this - there definitely was. Councilmember Lewis in particular, and also Councilmember Herbold - both very strong proponents of having some type of program like this in Seattle. But what we saw was just obstacle after obstacle, after hurdle after hurdle, and just a lot of back and forth, a lot of dragging feet from both the executive's office - both previous Mayor Durkan and current Mayor Harrell - and a lot of dragging of the feet of SPD. You can kind of chart it out and see the strategy of making this take as long as possible, which I do in that article I was talking about.
But I think one of the most powerful things I can do is compare Seattle to another city who did it differently. So in Seattle, we have this new pilot now through the CARE Department. It has six responders hired. They are focused, I think, only in the downtown area. And they work 11 a.m. to 11 p.m, so it's not 24/7 coverage - because there's only six of them, right? There's only so much you can do with six people, and they work in teams of two. So that is what we have. That just got stood up a month ago, month and a half ago - very recently. And like I said, it's not even a true dual dispatch until the MOU gets signed. And frankly, I was very disappointed that it was a dual dispatch at all. So that's what we've finally accomplished in Seattle after all of these years of politicking - versus Albuquerque. So Albuquerque, first of all, it's a little bit smaller than Seattle - maybe about 200,000 fewer people live in Albuquerque. So keep that in mind when we think about scale, right? So they also are under a consent decree, just as we have been, for a slightly shorter amount of time - but for a long time as well. So that is comparable in some ways. But in 2020, they took seriously the call from community to start some kind of emergency alternative response to respond to crisis calls. And in 2023, they budgeted $11.7 million to their response, which has been growing over the last several years. They now have over 70 responders employed to do this alternative emergency response. Their teams respond to calls related to homelessness, substance abuse, and mental health, as well as calls related to things like used needles and abandoned vehicles. And they are allowed to answer calls on their own, and they don't have to go out with the police. And they talk a lot about how what they're doing is using a public health approach. This is Albuquerque. And I guess I didn't mention earlier, but Seattle - what we are paying for our alternative response program for 2024 is $1.8 million. $1.8 million versus $11.7 million. And Albuquerque is smaller.
[00:22:46] Shannon Cheng: That's incredible. And also I wanna call out - so $1.8 million is a little over a third of the bonuses that we are giving SPOG in this MOU to have them maybe work less special event shifts. That is just mind blowing - the difference in scale of what we're willing to put money towards.
[00:23:08] Amy Sundberg: Yeah, and the Albuquerque program has been so successful, they keep scaling up. And they've scaled up pretty quickly - it's really impressive. So kudos to them. I really appreciate that they're offering us a vision of what could be, but it certainly is not what we have been doing here in Seattle - which is really disappointing, especially given how strongly people that live here reacted to the murder of George Floyd and how long those protesters were out there - night after night after night asking for something better, right? And we look now at where we are and like - well, we haven't given people something better. That's just - I mean, that's my opinion, but I think it's also - if you look at the facts, it's pretty backed up by facts.
[00:23:53] Shannon Cheng: Yeah, and by polling. And I agree, it's been really frustrating to see other places around the country continue to lap us - even locally here. I don't feel like it's talked about very much, but we did do a show with them here on Hacks & Wonks. So up north, there's a five-city consortium that is Bothell, Kenmore, Lake Forest Park, Shoreline, and Kirkland. And what they started with - they didn't start out immediately with full civilian-led crisis response. I think something that people are concerned about in standing up these programs is that they're worried - well, what if the crisis responder comes across something that they can't handle and they get hurt? - that kind of question. And that's why they're arguing that they need this police backup. There's all sorts of things about that - I mean, I would say sometimes the police tend to actually escalate these situations and make them more dangerous, and thereby I'm not sure that having the police backup would actually help. So what happened with this five-city consortium is that they started out with a program within the King County Sheriff's Office called RADAR. And it was a co-response model where a sheriff's deputy and the crisis responder co-responded to a situation. And I believe that it was more equal - that the co-responder had agency in these calls. It wasn't just the sheriff's deputy making all the decisions. But what happened is that over time - and I feel like it was a relatively short amount of time, like on the order of one to two years - the sheriff's deputies realized, You know what? We're not really needed at these calls. And it's actually really boring for us to sit around, watch a crisis responder who's skilled deescalate a situation, and I could spend my time better doing something else. And so that's actually what's happening. This program has now evolved into something called the Regional Crisis Response Agency, which is civilian-led. And they're not yet, I think, at 24/7 coverage, but they're working towards that. And so this is happening literally just north of us, okay? So it is possible here in Washington state - I know that there've been comments made that some of these other places, maybe they have different state labor laws that might affect things. But fundamentally, I think the difference is whether the police guild is willing to work with the program and allow it to happen. So I think for whatever reason, with the King County Sheriff's Office - they were more open to accepting this kind of program, and letting it grow and evolve, and thereby taking workload off of them. Whereas here in Seattle, we don't really see that same situation with SPOG.
[00:26:33] Amy Sundberg: Yeah, I've been really interested in this consortium of cities that has done this. I think that is, from what I understand, it's not an uncommon path for these programs to take - to start out with more of a police presence and then kind of realize over time, Oh, maybe this isn't actually necessary, and to evolve in that way. So I mean, there is certainly hope that Seattle could do the same thing. We're just very far behind in terms of timing. And there's also - while there is hope, there's no guarantee that it will develop that way.
[00:27:08] Shannon Cheng: Yeah, I would say that a lot of what I'm seeing happening in Seattle now is putting a lot of trust in faith that SPOG is going to allow certain things to happen, or not stand in the way, or not demand exorbitant amounts of money to get the things that the City wants. And I don't know that - looking at past history of our dealings with SPOG - that we can really trust that that's how things are gonna go. I mean, they have social media accounts that literally post made up images of a public safety index that has no relation to reality - doing fearmongering about whether people in the city feel safe or not. I just don't see them as being good faith participants in working with us on measures that make the public feel safe that doesn't involve the police department.
[00:28:04] Amy Sundberg: Yeah, I agree with you. I am also concerned - certainly that's been part of my motivation for following this story so closely over the last several years. Because like I said, there's no - just because it's gone like that in other cities does not mean that it will happen that way here. And as we see, in fact, it hasn't. The type of program that Albuquerque has developed doesn't look very much like what we have developed in the same amount of time. So no guarantees then - just hopes, thoughts and prayers, which doesn't necessarily get you very far.
[00:28:36] Shannon Cheng: Yeah, so I guess what was spelled out in this MOU about the dual dispatch that I found concerning is that it really looks like the police officer has authority over almost every aspect of what the alternate - well, I don't even know that we can call it an alternate crisis response - what the dual dispatch looks like. They get to decide when and if it's safe for the crisis responder to enter the scene. They get to decide whether they leave or not. The MOU specifically says that it doesn't affect the number of officers who respond to the incident. So if you're worried about understaffing and needing less officers going to some of these calls, that's not in this MOU. Something that really worried me is that even if the officer decides that the crisis responder can handle the situation - afterwards, the crisis responder will file the incident report within the police department's system. And so - I think in 2020, what we heard was a lot of community members coming out saying that they do not feel safe calling the police when they or a loved one is undergoing a crisis. And so if the solution we're offering now is one where police show up and even if they don't participate, they get record of what happened with the loved one - this kind of goes against everything that was being asked for, and it is still not going to serve people in the city who don't wanna use police for these situations.
[00:30:08] Amy Sundberg: I agree. I don't think that it is what community was asking for. There definitely are people who don't feel safe calling the police who aren't gonna want their information then transferred to a police database to potentially be used later. I will say that one thing the MOU does do - that wasn't particularly clear from the original press release about it - is that it does allow a police officer to clear a scene while not being physically present. So it does clear the way for potentially calls being answered only by the CARE responders and not actually having a police officer there as well. So that is important to note, but even if that is happening, there will still be information about that filed into the police database - in SPD's database. So that is part of the agreement, part of what is being memorialized here.
Also, the scope of the program is defined by this agreement, and I find that quite troubling. The number of responders allowed to be hired by the end of 2025, beginning of 2026 is 24 full-time. 24. So just to remind you, Albuquerque - smaller than us - has more than 70, and they were able to ramp that up in two to three years. So we're talking about a two-year ramp up here. If we were serious about this program, we could definitely ramp up above 24, but we will not be able to because of what this MOU says. We are limited to 24 - that's all we'll be able to do. And then the other thing that I found very interesting is that this MOU limits the call types that CARE responders will be allowed to answer to person down calls and welfare check calls. So there will be no ability to expand beyond those two call types, regardless of how anything might change in the interim. I thought that was really interesting because during one of the hearings - when they had Amy Smith, who is the director of the new CARE Department, people were really interested in the call types, right? What call types would be answered? Yes, right now it's person down and welfare check, but could we expand that later? And she seemed, to me, to be kind of reluctant to answer - kept heading off and being like, Well, first we need to expand to 24/7 coverage. Which reasonable, fair enough - but after reading this MOU, I was like, Oh, and also they won't be allowed to expand, so it's a moot point, right? These are the two call types, and that's all that they're gonna be able to do - period.
[00:32:43] Shannon Cheng: So let's back out a little bit because this is something that I know I have been confused about for a long time. And to be clear, I am not a labor lawyer - if there's any labor lawyers listening to this and who can help explain this to me better, I would really appreciate it. But you hear about all these types of calls that we acknowledge - and I think even sometimes SPD acknowledges that they are not the best first responders for. So why is it that we have to go through this whole negotiation process - and whether it's through an MOU or the full contract - why does that have to happen before we can offload work from an understaffed department to other people who are better at the job?
[00:33:26] Amy Sundberg: Well, Shannon, I am also not a labor lawyer, but I will do my best. From what I understand, workers have bodies of work. So you have to negotiate if you wanna take away any piece of that body of work and give it to a different worker. So that's what we're looking at here - because these are considered SPD's body of work. However, you make a really compelling point in that - for years now, SPD has been talking with increasing urgency about how understaffed they are, about the staffing crisis. And we know that this staffing crisis of police departments is not just here in Seattle - it's nationwide. Police departments all across the country are facing the exact same staffing shortages that we are here in Seattle. So obviously this is not just a local problem - this is larger than that. Given the fact that this is a problem that doesn't seem to be able to be addressed anytime soon. I mean, as much as people like to slag on City Council about these sorts of things, the fact is - they, in the last year or so, they passed these big police hiring bonuses. They've approved the hiring plans. They've done everything SPD has asked them to do regarding staffing in particular. And yet we do not see any particular improvement in this area. Staffing so far for 2023 for SPD - they actually still are in the negative. They are not hiring as much as they are losing officers - still, even with these bonuses, which have not been shown to work. So this is gonna be a problem for a while. This is not something you can fix quickly. There is a hiring training pipeline that takes quite a while to complete to get new police officers. There are not a lot of lateral hires - that is, police officers who are already trained, who are willing to move from a different department - we hired hardly any of those in 2023. Apparently we had some candidates, but they weren't qualified to serve in SPD - they weren't appropriate candidates. So we don't have a lot of them. Chief Diaz has said he expects potentially more lateral hires in 2024, but he did not give any reasons as to why he would expect that to be any different, so whether he has actual reasons or whether he's just kind of hoping - I'm not certain - but this is obviously something that's gonna go on for more than a year or two, right?
[00:35:55] Shannon Cheng: Right.
[00:35:55] Amy Sundberg: So because of that, I do think that there is potentially a legal argument to be made that some of the body of work of SPD officers needs to be given to other people because there just simply aren't enough SPD officers to do it all. And then you made a great point that what we've seen in other municipalities is that police officers - some of this work - they don't even wanna do it. They're actually end up being quite happy to have other people doing it so that they can go off and do other parts of the job that perhaps they prefer. So it's interesting watching this play out here and how it's kind of different from how it's playing out elsewhere in the country.
[00:36:38] Shannon Cheng: Yeah, it feels like here - as you said, the City has done everything they possibly could to encourage staffing and hiring of new or lateral hires to the department and it just - it's not working. So in the meantime, we still have all these needs in the city to address - and they're not getting addressed, or they're getting addressed poorly. So it's frustrating that we're being held up by this issue of certain aspects being considered under the police body of work and not being able to let people who are better able to do that work - and honestly, for less money - and alleviate some of all the problems that people are frustrated about in this city. So again, not a labor lawyer, but my understanding is there would be concern that if we just went ahead and started taking some of this work from SPD without their signing off on it - is that SPOG could file an Unfair Labor Practice with the state PERC, the Public Employment Relations Commission, which oversees state labor law. And I guess I don't know what that ruling would be, but it seems like the City's not willing to go that route. I understand that it would entail standing up to SPOG, which I agree completely is a scary thing to do, but the people who are our electeds are the ones with the power to do that. So I don't know - if you've been elected, we need you to stand up to SPOG.
[00:38:10] Amy Sundberg: Well, and because of the staffing shortage at SPD, that does present a really compelling argument that the city can make if there was to be an Unfair Labor Practice suit filed, right? Because if SPD is unable to do this work because they can't hire enough and they've been getting all the support they've been asking for to hire as much as possible, and yet they still don't have enough staffing, someone has to do the work. So I do think that - I don't know how that suit would go, but it's not for sure that SPOG would win.
[00:38:44] Shannon Cheng: Right. I just wonder why that's not an option that the City seems to be pursuing and that they're just, with this MOU, basically just saying, Fine, we'll just pay out. - what to me feels like, I don't know, sort of a ransom that SPOG is holding us under to let us do things that we all fundamentally want to do. So where is this MOU in the process? You said that the $4.5 million plus $3.6 million the next year has already been approved through the budget process. So what happens next?
[00:39:15] Amy Sundberg: Yeah, so the money has been approved - that part is done. But what happens next is that the full council has to vote on the actual MOU agreement. So there's money for it, but they haven't yet approved it. So that vote, I believe, will be happening at their full council meeting on Tuesday, December 5th, which is at 2 p.m. in the afternoon. So if people want to get involved and share their opinions with their councilmembers about this MOU, you have until December 5th to do so. You can email your councilmembers, you can call your councilmembers, you can see if now that budget season is over, you can potentially even meet with them - although it is a pretty tight timeline to do that. And then you can give public comment at that meeting on December 5th, either virtually - you can call in - or you can go to City Hall and do it in person. I do encourage people to do this if they are so moved. I think it's really important for our elected leaders to hear from the people and hear what we wanna see and what we are concerned about. Even if we are not able to stop this MOU from being approved, I think it's really valuable for our elected leaders to know that this is an issue of concern, that the people of Seattle care about it, and that we're paying attention. And I do feel that there is significant value in that as we move towards potentially looking at a completed contract with SPOG. Those negotiations are ongoing - I don't expect to see that contract this year, but I would not be shocked to see it sometime next year. So to let electeds know now that this is something that we care about will then build momentum for the bigger conversation that is to come.
[00:40:59] Shannon Cheng: Yeah, completely. Our electeds really do need to hear that this is something that we're concerned about, that we understand is important, that we've been waiting for five years for a different full SPOG contract to help address some of the things we talked about at the beginning of this show.
I would also - I just wanna let people know - I think this is also something that's very in the weeds and maybe isn't really well understood. But the way that these labor contracts get negotiated at the city is that there's a whole team on the City side, which includes representatives from the mayor's office, as well as from city council. And the way that it's structured - it's called the LRPC, or the Labor Relations Policy Committee - the way they have it set up is that five councilmembers, and the five is important because five is a majority. Five out of nine of our council sits on that LRPC, so they are privy to the negotiations. And under state labor law, all of these negotiations are behind closed doors. So the public really has no insight into what's happening until we get something like this temporary MOU coming out for approval, or eventually a full contract for approval. The last time that the public had any opportunity to give input into what this SPOG contract is gonna look like was in December of 2019, when a public hearing was held 90 days ahead of when they started negotiations for the new contract. So it has been four years since the public has had any chance to weigh in on what we would like to see in this contract. And as we all know, a lot has happened in those four years that may affect what we hope to see that comes out. Anyway, just going back - the LRPC, I believe, is purposely structured to have this majority of council on it. Because that means that any labor agreement that comes out of that committee means that it had the approval of those five councilmembers. So if we get to the City Council meeting where Council's gonna approve it, and one of those councilmembers ends up voting against it, there could be a argument made that they were not bargaining in good faith. So the whole thing is set up that the public has very little in the way of power to affect how these agreements happen. And I just wanna call that out.
[00:43:14] Amy Sundberg: For sure, Shannon. If this is an area that you work on regularly as we do, it is very frustrating how few chances there are to have any real impact.
[00:43:23] Shannon Cheng: I would also say that the other period of time where you might have impact is that period between contracts - so after a contract has been accepted and is implemented, and before the next contract is entering into this black box of contract negotiations. The way that we've seen some of these negotiations happen, they are so lengthy in time that - SPOG is currently working without a current contract for three years. I think the contract they're negotiating is five years long. So we're already behind the last time that we did this - last time they approved it in November of the third year, it's almost December. So this is gonna be even less time after they approve this contract before they're gonna have to start negotiating the next one. I seriously wonder if at some point we're gonna get to the point where they're gonna be negotiating two contracts at the same time, or maybe they need to make the contract longer than five years? I just - again, not a labor lawyer - I don't know what happens with all this. But the reason - I think, and I've seen indications of this - that the negotiations take this long is because SPOG is not willing to accept accountability provisions that the City wants. And what's gonna happen, which is the same thing as what happened the last time, is that so much time will pass with them not having a real contract that they're gonna come out and make this argument that they haven't had a living wage increase for many years, and we just - the City needs to cave and give them what they want so that they can get raised back up to whatever level that they deserve. Which I'm not saying that they don't deserve, but they're doing this at the expense of us getting things that we want in that contract. And it's the same playbook every single time - and we need people to step up and call this out if we don't want it to keep happening.
[00:45:15] Amy Sundberg: I will say too, that from what I understand - and I actually did talk to a labor lawyer about this - this is fairly unusual in labor overall for these contracts to be so far extended. And one of the issues that arises because of this is issue of back pay. Because when negotiating for raises, it's actually not unusual for any kind of union to get back pay as part of it for when the negotiation is taking place. But normally that amount of time would be maybe six months max of back pay, because that's how long it takes to complete the contract. In this case though, we're talking about over three years of back pay, and three years in which there has been a lot of inflation, right? So we're talking about potentially millions upon millions of dollars in a lump sum that the City will need to pay when they approve this contract - just for back pay, for things that have already happened - not even looking forward and thinking about how much the raises will cost the City in the future. So that becomes a significant issue at that point.
[00:46:22] Shannon Cheng: And this links back to why this MOU matters, right? As you were saying that - we know the money for it is coming out of some special pay reserve that the City has. I would think that that pay reserve has been put aside in part to probably help pay some of this back pay that we're expecting to get when there is a final SPOG contract. So if we're using up $4.5 million now through next year, $3.6 million the next year from this reserve, that is less money that we have at the bargaining table to have leverage over what we get from SPOG in the final contract.
[00:46:53] Amy Sundberg: But not only that, Shannon - also it impacts all other city workers. That's the money that's potentially for them too. So I mean, if you look at the firefighters, they're in the middle of negotiating a contract right now - I guess they have one that maybe they're voting on - which doesn't keep up with inflation. So if they agree to this contract - in real terms, they'll be receiving a wage cut - our firefighters. And then we have the Coalition of City Unions, who I - unless this has changed in the last few days, the most recent offer was a 2.5% wage increase. 2.5% - do you know how much inflation has been? These poor workers. And of course we don't have any insight into what SPOG is being offered right now - that is not public information. But it will be really interesting - when this contract does become available to the public - to see how that compares to the contracts that the Coalition of City Unions is being pressured to accept, or the contract that the firefighters are being pressured to accept. So it's not like this all happens in a vacuum. Whatever SPOG does also affects all the other unions in the city.
[00:48:01] Shannon Cheng: That's a good point. I mean, much like the general fund funds lots of aspects across the city, I imagine this pay reserve - it's not the SPD pay reserve, but effectively it feels like that might be what it is. And that's super unfair to all the other city workers. Everything at the city is interrelated - SPOG is not the only union that the City is dealing with, both in terms of funding for their department, but also the staffing and the pay raises. So let's go back and talk a little bit more about police guilds and other unions, and I've heard police guilds are different from other workers' unions and that sometimes aren't aligned with the working class. Could you talk a little bit more about that, Amy?
[00:48:44] Amy Sundberg: Yeah, I mean, I would say that police guilds are different from other unions in at least three ways. The first way, as you said, is that in general - police are on the side of the boss. They're not on the side of working people. They get their power from protecting rich people, right? Obviously I could say it in more academic language, but that is basically what I mean. They get their power from protecting rich people's interests. They get their power from protecting rich people's property. And that is not in alignment with other working people who are fighting for different rights. And you can see this in history. If you look at the history of policing in this country - in the South, police kind of rose up - they caught slaves. That was one of the first things they did, right? And the police developed from that, which is obviously horrendous. And then in the North, it was a little bit different, but police rose up or were very heavily involved in union busting back at a time when that was a big deal. So they have never been aligned with the working class, but I do think that those origins have become hazy through the passage of time and because of messaging, right? It definitely benefits police guilds to be seen as part of unions, even though they're not necessarily gonna be fighting for the same things that unions fight for. And so I think that's part of why there is that kind of argument at play. So that is one reason why they're different.
Like I said earlier, another reason why they're different is because they, along with potentially prison guards and border patrol workers - these are kind of a different class of workers in that they're the only ones negotiating for the right to use force, right? To potentially kill, to hurt somebody, to surveil people - all of that kind of stuff, which is just inherently very different than the rights that other workers are organizing to get. And then the last point is that they do benefit from exceptions to rules governing other workers in terms of scope and in terms of contract negotiations, particularly with respect to provisions governing transparency and discipline. So they have different rules applied to them. So it's just - it's different, they're different. And it's important to really talk about these things, and study these things, and look and see more deeply how they're different because this is an argument that is brought to bear to kind of stop further accountability from being possible - as I know, we've both seen that play out here in Washington state.
[00:51:21] Shannon Cheng: Yeah, completely. As I mentioned before, I foresee that when the eventual SPOG contract comes out, there will be pressure from SPOG that this is part of their inherent labor rights, that if we don't get what we wanna see in it in terms of the accountability pieces specifically, that - Well, you'll just need to wait till next time, or something like that. It'll be this incremental approach. When the 2018 SPOG contract got approved - I was at that hearing - and definitely there was a division within labor there. As you were just mentioning, I think that some people do see that the police guilds are not always aligned with workers - and we did see some unions come out to that effect. We also saw other workers come out in solidarity with SPOG arguing that - Yeah, they deserve their raises and benefits and they had been working too long without a contract. At the time, SPOG was still a member of the MLK Labor Council, so I think that helped a lot. We did, in 2020, see SPOG get ousted from that MLK Labor Council. So I am curious to see if anything plays out differently this time around - remains to be seen.
And finally, I will say that I've heard a lot of councilmembers reference this - that they are hoping for some kind of state legislative solution that will help them with being better able to negotiate these contracts with the police guilds. But we've been following this at the state level also. And I will say that currently any action on the state level - it's dead. It's been dead for several years. There was a bill introduced in 2021 that laid out some things, but there was no movement on it. And the reason there's no movement on it is because labor as a whole is not on board with it - they feel like it's gonna be an erosion of workers' rights. And it may be, but as you were saying, police guilds are different than unions - and I think that the legislation was crafted to try to make that distinction. And so I'm not sure whether those fears are completely founded or not, but in any case, nothing is happening on that front.
[00:53:27] Amy Sundberg: I did find that legislation very interesting. And I agree that over time it was worked upon to be really laser precise in terms of what it did. And at the end of the development that I'm aware of, what the bill actually did is that it took accountability measures for police off of the bargaining table by creating an overall unified standard that police departments across the state would have to live up to. So it would no longer be something that you negotiate in the contract - it would just be, This is how we operate. This is how accountability works in the state of Washington. And as I said, that is one of the ways in which police guilds are different than unions - is that they have this bargaining power over these accountability issues that are just not relevant in any other union's bailiwick of work. So that is why the bill was crafted the way it was to be such a kind of surgical carve-out of certain things.
The reason this would be helpful - first of all, it would set a statewide standard so that's inherently helpful. But also if you take those accountability issues off of the bargaining table, then you can actually spend more time and energy bargaining for other things - like a better emergency alternative response program, or something like this. So right now it's harder for the City to do that because they have to be thinking about these accountability pieces. And especially right now, because - I do not know that they will be allowed out of the consent decree totally until they meet the 2017 accountability ordinance in the SPOG contract. And I do not think that Judge Robart will allow them to leave without showing that that is part of the new contract.
I will say as well, that one of the reasons the MOU is worrisome to me is because it kind of shows potentially how things are going with the larger negotiation around this actual contract, which as we know - because it takes so long to negotiate it, once we get one, we're stuck with it for potentially a really, really long time, right? So it's a big deal. Whatever ends up in this new contract is a really big deal because we'll be stuck with it for a while. So even though the MOU is term limited - it will expire at the beginning of 2026. So at first I was like, Well, at least we don't have to pay these special event bonuses in perpetuity, at least it's only for a couple of years, at least we're only limited to 24 alternate first responders for a couple of years. But the thing is, these are also aspects that will have to be in that full contract - something will have to be in that full contract to allow us to continue this pilot in 2026 and beyond. So what is that gonna say? Is that also gonna limit how many people we can hire by a really significant amount? Is that also gonna limit the call types to be very, very narrow that they can respond to? Is it going to memorialize this sort of bonus so that we're paying out millions upon millions of dollars just to have permission to do these things when we know that SPD doesn't have the staffing to do them? That is an issue of real concern. And the MOU - to me - says these are things that we are potentially - they're going to have to be addressed in the contract so that we have something that reaches after 2025, and this might be how they are addressed, right? I mean, we don't know, obviously - black box - but these are things that when that contract is released, I'm going to be looking at very carefully and going to be very concerned about.
[00:57:11] Shannon Cheng: What if they don't include any of this stuff in the eventual contract? Does that mean on January 2nd, 2026, the dual dispatch pilot just suddenly has to stop operating?
[00:57:20] Amy Sundberg: I mean, yes - I think so. Unless they come to another MOU, right? Or like you said, they could risk an Unfair Labor Practice suit. But I mean, ultimately, this is gonna have to be worked out. So it's all fine and good for councilmembers to be like, Well, this is temporary - but ultimately it cannot be temporary. We're going to have to come to some kind of arrangement as to how this is going to work in the future.
[00:57:46] Shannon Cheng: Yeah, completely agree. I mean, Amy and I have been staring at this black box of contract negotiations for a really long time and trying to see any indication of anything that's going on with it. And this MOU is the first indication of how things are going. And I would say our estimation is - it's not going well. I mean, I think the other thing I saw that happened is we heard Councilmember Mosqueda say that she stepped down from the LRPC. I don't know that she fully explained what her reasoning was behind that, but my sense is she is probably the councilmember on current LRPC who is the most wanting of all the things we've been talking about in this episode. And she's specifically said that she didn't agree with the MOU because she felt like it was bad strategy in terms of the overall SPOG contract negotiation. So to me, part of her stepping down sounds like it's because those negotiations are not going well. And to me, that's very concerning.
[00:58:45] Amy Sundberg: Absolutely, and especially because she's going to be moving over to King Council now - she got elected as a King County councilmember now and she knew it was going okay. So she knew that was a possibility for her political future. And so she only had a few months left and yet she still stepped down. To me, what that says - obviously she's not allowed to say anything - but to me what that says is that there were big problems because otherwise why wouldn't you just finish your term? Like it's no big deal to do just a couple more months. And we also know that Councilmember Mosqueda has in general been a fierce champion of workers' rights and is very aligned with labor. So I am very concerned both as to what this means about the upcoming SPOG contract and about what this means to other labor and how they're being treated by the City. And we've seen this already playing out. So the fact that she stepped down shows, I think, the potentially - some deeper issues that are going to continue to be revealed over the next several months.
[00:59:49] Shannon Cheng: And I think this all happened kind of under the radar, but I was trying to do some digging to try to understand when that happened. And as far as I can figure, it was sometime around August. It was the same time that - from the mayor's side, Senior Deputy Mayor Monisha Harrell used to be on the LRPC. She has now been replaced by Tim Burgess. And with Councilmember Mosqueda stepping down, she has now been replaced by Councilmember Strauss.
[01:00:12] Amy Sundberg: I will say that Monisha Harrell was also known as something of a champion when it came to accountability, right? I felt that accountability was genuinely important to her and that she was committed to fighting for that in the next contract. But with her gone - again, black box, so we don't know - but it is discouraging news.
[01:00:35] Shannon Cheng: Yeah, so not to end everything on a huge downer, but that is the life you choose when you decide to make police contracts your issue of main interest.
[01:00:49] Amy Sundberg: You know, I actually - yes, this is bad news. But I do not think people should take this as a downer at all. I think people should take this as encouragement to get involved. If you haven't gotten involved up until this point, or if you are involved and you're beginning to flag or feel a little tired - which believe me, at this point I can really, really relate to - we're gonna need all hands on deck next year. And that's just me being realistic. It is really frustrating, but the only way we're gonna see the change that we want in this regard is by organizing. Organizing, organizing, organizing. And I will be more specific than that because I remember a time when people would say that to me and I would be like - I don't know what that means. Like, sure, but what do I actually personally do? And what I would say is if you wanna get involved - and I highly, highly encourage you to get involved with this - you need to find an organization to plug into so that you have that accountability of structure and community to kind of keep you going. And it doesn't mean you can't take breaks. In fact, I'd say you 100% should be taking breaks as well. I am about to take a week and a half break and I'm very excited about it, so I am the last person that will say anything against taking breaks. But if you're part, if you're building those relationships with others, it will keep you involved for the longterm, which is what we need for this kind of fight.
And organizations that are working on this specifically - I mean, I don't know them all, but I know People Power Washington - Shannon and I are involved with - we definitely are always working on this. Defend the Defund is another organization that you can look into. Labor 4 Black Lives - another organization you can look into. At the very least, you can follow this stuff in the news, whether that's - I don't as much recommend The Times, but PubliCola's great, The Stranger - you can follow it. You can subscribe to my newsletter Notes from the Emerald City - it's free. And I'm not doing this to push myself - I'm doing this because if you don't know what's happening, you cannot do anything. You're taking that choice away from yourself at that point. So my newsletter is once a week, so you can just like get it over with really quick and then move on with your life. But at least you kind of know what's happening. That being said, I think joining an organization - even if it's in a relatively time-light capacity - is the way to go, just because it will help to keep you engaged. Even like DivestSPD - they're a watchdog, big into accountability - that would be another one you could look into. But we're all gonna need to come together if we want to see changes in Seattle. If we wanna see the sorts of things happening in Albuquerque happen here, we're gonna have to work towards it because it's quite clear that our electeds are not gonna - either are not capable of doing it alone, or don't want to do it - so pressure, pressure is needed.
[01:03:53] Shannon Cheng: Thank you so much, Amy, for ending us on a better note. I 100% agree. I mean, being involved in an organization is what has kept me going through all of the ups and downs of everything. And we'll link to as many of those organizations that you listed in show notes for anybody who wants to get involved. I know for certain, People Power Washington will be watching what happens with the upcoming SPOG contract closely. If you just sign up for our mailing list, you will probably get an action alert when it is time because we are not going to have a lot of time when this happens. They are probably gonna drop it on us and we're gonna have to react quickly. So yes, please get involved in whatever capacity you can - and thank you so much!
[01:04:40] Crystal Fincher: Thank you for listening to Hacks & Wonks, which is produced by Shannon Cheng. You can follow Hacks & Wonks on Twitter @HacksWonks. You can catch Hacks & Wonks on every podcast service and app - just type "Hacks and Wonks" into the search bar. Be sure to subscribe to get the full versions of our Friday week-in-review shows and our Tuesday topical show delivered to your podcast feed. If you like us, leave a review wherever you listen. You can also get a full transcript of this episode and links to the resources referenced in the show at officialhacksandwonks.com and in the podcast episode notes.
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