Lawmakers OK New Seattle Police Contract with Big Pay Increases

May 15, 2024
The new deal makes Seattle police officers the highest paid officers in the state, bumping pay for a starting officer from $83,000 to $103,000.

The Seattle City Council approved a new agreement with the Seattle police union Tuesday, greenlighting an estimated $170 million in future and retroactive raises for nearly 1,000 officers.

The vote was 8-1, with only Councilmember Tammy Morales voting against.

The new contract makes officers with the Seattle Police Department the highest paid in the state, bumping pay for a starting officer from $83,000 to $103,000, with a raise after six months up to $110,000. Officers will, on average, receive nearly $60,000 in backpay upon the contract's signing, with some likely to see even more.

The previous contract expired at the end of 2020. Somewhat unusually, the agreement ratified Tuesday is only partial, dictating pay and policies for 2021 to 2023. The city and the guild are still in negotiations about pay in 2024.

For a city council that recently swept into City Hall on the promise of growing the department, the hope is the sizable raises can make Seattle an attractive place for new recruits while incentivizing police already on the force to stay. The department has seen a net loss of 337 fully trained police since 2020.

"Yes, it is expensive," said chair of the public safety committee, Councilmember Bob Kettle. "Yes, it is a challenge for our budget. But if we don't compete in this labor market we won't achieve our goal of achieving a safe base in our city."

On the flip side, some fear the contract could hasten exits in the short term by officers who've held out for their backpay before leaving.

Mayor Bruce Harrell quickly signed the contract Tuesday afternoon, calling it "a needed step forward to advance our vision for a city where everyone, in every neighborhood, is safe and feels secure."

A major question of the new contract is whether it goes far enough to codify systems of accountability within the city. Seattle has lived under the supervision of a federal judge since 2012, when officials settled a complaint with the Department of Justice over excessive use of force and bias and agreed to overhaul the department.

Seattle has met nearly every benchmark of that agreement, including around use of force, but has not yet satisfied U.S. District Court Judge James Robart that it's done enough to hold officers accountable. The last agreement with the guild frustrated Robart for rolling back accountability reforms put into place by a previous council in the form of a 2017 law.

The new contract makes some strides toward stronger accountability. Most notably, it says independent arbitrators — who have the authority to overturn discipline and firings — should defer to the chief of police's decisions. That change puts more power in the hands of Seattle's chief to fire officers and keep them fired.

The new contract also allows for greater civilian presence in certain departmental jobs, such as reviewing automated traffic tickets, and in investigations into alleged officer misbehavior.

Still, the agreement does not go as far as what City Hall has pushed for in the past. For example, in its 2017 ordinance, the city stated that disciplinary appeals should bypass arbitration altogether and instead go to an internal commission. The contract also retains a vague elevated standard for when an officer may be fired.

The administration of former Mayor Jenny Durkan told Robart that his concerns about accountability could be fixed in the next contract. But now that contract is here and co-chair of Seattle's Community Police Commission Joel Merkel said it doesn't go far enough.

In its ongoing negotiations, said Merkel, the city should push for "full implementation of the 2017 accountability ordinance so there could be a true, robust and fair accountability structure that the community can have faith in."

In a filing before Robart earlier this month, City Attorney Ann Davison argued the new contract makes significant strides toward accountability, while emphasizing its role in helping recruitment and retention. At the same time, Davison said "the City will continue to push to advance accountability and enhance public safety for all Seattle residents."

The two parties have already brought on a mediator. If subsequent accountability changes can't be agreed to, Davison did not rule out bringing in a third-party negotiator to issue binding rulings on the contract.

Morales expressed concerns about the contract, namely that it would not satisfy the city's obligations under its agreement with the federal government to ensure constitutional policing. She requested a delay on the vote so the council could host at least one public hearing.

"This is our first opportunity to have public comment since the bill became available and I think the community deserves a chance to have their voice heard," she said.

Other members echoed Morales's concerns, to an extent. Councilmember Rob Saka called it an "imperfect contract," but said the council's flexibility to push for changes in the agreement is limited by state collective bargaining rights.

Ultimately, whatever concerns members harbored were outweighed by their belief in the need to increase pay.

"This agreement, while not perfect, does help us recruit the best officers in our region," said Councilmember Dan Strauss. "When an annual salary across Lake Washington is higher than ours, we can't expect to recruit the number and quality of officers we need for our city."

The Seattle Police Officers Guild contract comes as the city faces down a more than $250 million budget deficit, the result largely of years of inflation and increased labor costs. The city has been squirreling away reserves in anticipation of the agreement, which mostly cover the costs.


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