Barriers to Police Accountability: The Role of Collective Bargaining Agreements and Private Arbitration of Police Discipline Appeals

Wednesday, January 20, 2021
More than 250 people have been killed by police in Washington state since 2013. That is an average of 32 of our community members killed by police per year.  Please take a moment to read the names of the Washingtonians killed most recently, on the attached slide. Disproportionately, they are people of color and people suffering from a mental health crisis. Each one leaves behind grieving family members, friends and a community. 

The loss of life and other injuries inflicted by the police on members of the public, whom they are sworn to serve and protect, must stop. The Washington Legislature is considering several very important bills, discussed in other parts of this blog series, that address the problem of police violence and hold officers accountable when they abuse their power. 

Police Collective Bargaining Agreements

Police union collective bargaining and private arbitration have historically posed major obstacles to accountability. Too often, local governments pass accountability measures that police union collective bargaining agreements ultimately render meaningless. That’s why we support SB 5134, which would prevent bargaining over the most important police accountability issues and would end the private arbitration system that allows officers who commit egregious misconduct to be reinstated.

The ACLU strongly supports every worker’s right to unionize and collectively bargain. But because police have the authority to take life and liberty, they must be treated differently when it comes to accountability. Disciplinary actions related to deaths and injuries caused by police are matters of important public interest. They are not “working conditions,” such as wages and benefits, which are vital to workers and should be addressed in union contracts. Police union contracts should not shield state-sanctioned violence and abuse of power wielded against members of the public by police officers.
SB 5134 applies only to police and the unions representing them at the city, county and state levels. The bill removes specified accountability issues from police collective bargaining and ends private arbitration of police discipline appeals. Police officers retain their due process rights and can still appeal discipline. In place of private arbitration, which lacks transparency, this legislation would require an open hearing before a civil service commission, hearing examiner, or administrative law judge, and a publicly available ruling.

For decades, whenever community members in Washington and around the country have fought for civilian oversight and strengthened police accountability, they saw these gains undone in subsequent police union collective bargaining. In Seattle, for example, the city spent months consulting with community members and experts to draft one of the best police accountability ordinances in the country. The 2017 Accountability Ordinance passed unanimously, but over three years later, important parts of it have been blocked from going into effect. 

Why? Because in collective bargaining negotiations, the city agreed to police union demands that parts of the ordinance be scrapped. In Seattle, collective bargaining contracts supersede ordinances, so weaker accountability in the collective bargaining contract replaced the accountability ordinance. This problem is not unique to Seattle. SB 5134 would remove certain accountability measures from collective bargaining so that critical local changes like these could not be undone.

Private Arbitration

But collective bargaining is not the only barrier to police accountability. Private arbitration gives a person chosen by the police union and the employer the authority to either uphold disciplinary action taken by police chiefs or sheriffs, overturn it or change the sanction for misconduct altogether. Officers terminated for excessive force are routinely reinstated through private arbitration allowed by the collective bargaining contract. The process is shrouded in secrecy, including the evidence regarding misconduct and the arbitrator’s decision.

In 2018, private arbitration led to the reinstatement of Seattle Police Officer Adley Shepherd, who was fired for punching a handcuffed woman in the face and fracturing her eye. An arbitration board changed the firing to a 15-day suspension and Shepherd was able to rejoin the police force, although in a different assignment. Community outrage about the case prompted the city to change the arbitration system, only to have it reinstated through police union bargaining. Seattle’s accountability ordinance included a provision limiting the use of private arbitration for police discipline because community trust in the police had severely eroded. But, in a move that demonstrates the need to take accountability issues like this out of police collective bargaining, Seattle then significantly weakened the ordinance in collective bargaining with the police union, allowing the problematic use of arbitration to continue.

Over the past decade, Crosscut reported, “arbitrators agreed to reduce the discipline imposed by the Seattle police chief more often than not.”

Other examples in Washington of police committing egregious misconduct and being reinstated by arbitration include: The weakening of police accountability through collective bargaining agreements with police unions and through use of private arbitration for police discipline appeals is well documented nationally and locally: Enough is enough.

ACLU-WA supports SB 5134, sponsored by Sen. Jesse Salomon and co-sponsored by Sen. Jeannie Darneille, because it is an essential part of the package of bills for 2021 aimed at strengthening police accountability.

Here’s what you can do

  • SB 5134 had a hearing before the Senate Committee on Labor, Commerce & Tribal Affairs on Jan. 14, 2021. Watch the hearing, which started at 8 a.m., at
  • Write or call your lawmakers, as soon as possible, and show your support for these efforts.
  • Sign up for ACLU-WA’s action alerts so that you can keep updated as these policing bills move through the state legislature.