Seattle Police guild votes no confidence in chief

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About 88 percent of some 1,000 Seattle Police Officers Guild members have voted no confidence in Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske in balloting triggered by the public discipline of a patrolman and simmering ire over last year’s Mardi Gras rioting, several sources familiar with the vote said today.

At the same time, City Council members and Mayor Greg Nickels' office this afternoon reaffirmed their support for Kerlikowske, leaving it doubtful the vote will have any serious immediate effect on Kerlikowske’s leadership or tenure in Seattle.

Guild's nine points against Kerlikowske

Along with the ballots asking members to vote whether they had confidence in the leadership of Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske, the Seattle Police Officers Guild sent a letter that listed nine reasons for the union's displeasure with him. Here are those reasons, quoted from the ballot letter:

• The Chief has a double standard of accountability in regard to the upper administration and rank and file members. This fact is illustrated in the contrast between the Chief's actions in response to Mardi Gras 2001 and the July 9th jaywalking incident.

• While holding the Officer in the jaywalking incident to "the higher standards for Officer conduct the Department imposes upon itself," and accusing him of bringing "discredit upon the Seattle Police Department," the Chief neither supported a full investigation of, nor disciplined senior commanders who were responsible for the February 2001 Mardi Gras incident.

• The Chief's response to the 2001 Mardi Gras was initially to take responsibility for the failures of the senior commanders to take appropriate action only to later step away from the responsibility.

• The Department initially refused to review the acts and omissions that lead (sic) to the Mardi Gras/Fat Tuesday incident and did so only AFTER the Guild initiated its own independent investigation. Although IIS (Internal Investigations Section) complaints were filed against senior command staff personnel, no investigations were initiated , no one has been held accountable for their failure to take appropriate action and no one has been disciplined publicly or otherwise.

• Morale has plummeted since the Mardi Gras/Fat Tuesday debacle and has worsened with the outcome of the OPA (Office of Professional Accountability) investigation into the unfounded racial profiling incident.

• These decisions were solely the responsibility of the Chief, and only the Chief should be held accountable for the decisions.

• The decision of the Chief to publicly issue a sustained finding against the officer was made solely for political reasons and not supported by the facts of the incident.

• The Chief's decision was captured in the words of a local journalist, "The department called the reprimand 'light corrective' actions. Translate that and you get this: 'scapegoat.'."

• Because of the Chief's latest decision, the most routine aspects of patrol cannot be done without fear of unwarranted discipline.

Kerlikowske has promised that the vote will spur him to begin better communication with the union.

According to sources at the police department and City Hall, 83 percent of the 1,200 member union — or about 996 members — returned the ballots that were sent out last month. Of that pool, about 88 percent, or 876 votes, were cast against the chief, with about 120 votes expressing confidence in his leadership.

The precise vote tally hasn’t been officially released. The guild leadership was to officially announce the vote totals to rank-and-file members at a meeting tonight. Guild president Ken Saucier today declined to comment until the meeting tonight.

Kerlikowske declined to be interviewed about the vote, instead issuing a short written statement.

"I am extremely grateful of Mayor Greg Nickels' support," Kerlikowske's statement said.

"The Seattle Police Officer’s Guild action can open a dialogue on the important issues affecting the department. I recognize that many of these issues have been ongoing for several years. I am committed to improving communications with the guild."

Mayor Nickels has continually said that he stands behind Kerlikowske regardless of the vote. The 88-percent to 12-percent margin in the vote won’t sway that, said Marianne Bichsel, Nickels’ spokesman.

"The mayor made his decision about Chief Kerlikowske last December" as the mayor prepared to take office, Bichsel said. "He (Nickels) continues to support the chief and have confidence in him."

Still, Bichsel said, the vote "is an expression of some labor-management issues that need to be addressed." She said the mayor plans to work with the guild to find "common ground."

Allied with the mayor today were Seattle City Council members, who said the vote would not diminish their support for Kerlikowske, who was hired after a lengthy nationwide search two years ago.

"I support the chief of police," said City Councilman Jim Compton, who chairs the council’s public safety committee and said that Saucier informed him of the vote totals Tuesday.

"We have to acknowledge the level of frustration and anger among the rank and file of the police department, but the union does not get to pick the police chief," Compton said. He added that he was waiting for "constructive" ideas from the guild on how to improve police morale.

City Councilman Richard McIver said the vote simply "reflects the usual tension between management and labor."

The vote comes as the union and the city prepare for contract negotiations to begin later this year. Mayor Nickels and some City Council members have said they want to push for increased citizen involvement in police disciplinary decisions in the new contract, but the guild has resisted changes to the disciplinary system.

The guild announced the vote the first week of February, after Kerlikowske publicly issued an oral reprimand against Officer Jess Pitts, who was accused of racism and bullying last July by a group of Asian students who were stopped for jaywalking in the Chinatown International District.

The chief dismissed the racism and misconduct claims but agreed with the director of the Office of Professional Accountability that Pitts had been rude and that had contributed to the escalation of the incident.

But the union also has been adamant that the Pitts discipline was just part of the Guild’s growing displeasure with Kerlikowske. They also have insisted that upcoming contract talks had nothing to do with the decision to hold the vote.

The ballots, which included simply two choices — yes or no to the question of confidence in Kerlikowske’s leadership — were sent with a letter that listed nine reasons to vote against him.

At the top of that list, the rank-and-file has been complaining that Kerlikowske showed a "double standard of accountability" by disciplining officers but not disciplining commanders who let the 2001 Mardi Gras celebration in Pioneer Square turn into a riot that left Kristopher Kime dead and dozens of revelers injured.

"It is imperative that all members vote," the letter said. "We must stand strong and together. This may be the most important vote you cast as a guild member. This is your chance to make a difference."

Meantime, Kerlikowske’s allies in national law-enforcement circles continued to say today that Kerlikowske should be able to survive the controversy.

"Wherever you find a police chief who is trying to make a difference, you’ll find a union that holds a no-confidence vote — it comes with the territory," said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington, D.C., think tank of which Kerlikowske is a former president.

"It’s unfortunate, but it’s much more like a badge of honor for Police Chief Kerlikowske, because it shows the chief is willing to make tough decisions."