The City Attorney ordinarily refrains from discussing settlement of employment matters. However, both the public and the Community Police Commission have requested explanation of my recent decision to settle the disciplinary appeal brought by the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild (SPOG) on behalf of former Seattle Police Officer Cynthia Whitlatch. The Seattle Police Department (SPD) has indicated only that it relied on my recommendation regarding settlement, so I am providing this statement now.
My office has been working for many months on SPOG’s disciplinary appeal contesting Whitlatch’s termination. We anticipated presenting a vigorous defense of Chief O’Toole’s decision to terminate Officer Whitlatch on the grounds that she violated SPD’s expectations regarding biased policing, arising out of and subsequent to Whitlatch’s July 9, 2014, arrest of Mr. William Wingate. On the merits, this case was vitally important. I fully supported Chief O’Toole’s September 15, 2015, disciplinary decision at the time, and I continue to support it now.
In arbitration, however, the City’s defense was significantly affected by technical and procedural issues under SPOG’s Collective Bargaining Agreement that has long governed—and continues to govern–such proceedings. Most significantly, the union could present a serious argument that all discipline was completely barred because the officer was not notified of the Chief’s disciplinary decision within 180 days of a sworn supervisor’s knowledge of the underlying facts. Although there was room for dispute over this issue, the possibility that Ms. Whitlatch might be reinstated as an SPD Officer by the Disciplinary Review Board, with full back pay, led my office to entertain discussions of compromise with SPOG. Officer Whitlatch and the Guild ultimately agreed to several key provisions:
- The disciplinary determination remains in place;
- Ms. Whitlatch will not return to SPD; and
- Ms. Whitlatch will never seek employment in law enforcement again.
In return Ms. Whitlatch receives partial back pay, sufficient to qualify for early retirement.
This compromise highlights two painfully obvious goals for improved police accountability in Seattle:
- All Seattle police personnel must remain vigilant in promptly reporting potential misconduct to the Office of Professional Accountability.
- As I have reiterated during the course of SPD’s five-year, federally-monitored reform process, the City must regain its ability to manage, discipline, and hold officers accountable without the impediments that have been inserted into collective bargaining agreements over the years. This case demonstrates the vital importance obtaining of new agreements with our police unions that fully embrace reforms achieved through the Consent Decree.