Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes announced this morning that Stafford Frey Cooper, a law firm that has represented Seattle cops for decades, will no longer serve as the exclusive counsel for officers sued for misconduct.
As a result, the firm will lose most of one of its most lucrative contracts—averaging $1.8 million from the city annually over the past decade.
Holmes says, "You can put more officers on the street if you're not spending as much money defending officers with private law firms."
In the future, the city's own lawyers will handle many of those cases—thereby saving an estimated $800,000 annually—and the city will contract out work "due to conflicts or capacity issues" in other cases to Christie Law Group PLLC, Freimund Jackson Tardif LLP, and Stafford Frey Cooper.
Meanwhile, the Seattle Police Officer's Guild (SPOG), a union representing approximately 1,300 officers, has fulfilled its pledge to oppose the change. In filing a labor complaint with the state in June, SPOG claimed that their preferred private law firm is an insurance benefit that the city can't change except by collective bargaining. That case remains unresolved until 2012, and Holmes acknowledges that the Washington State Public Employment Relations Commission cold override his decision, but Holmes contends that switching police defense work is legal under the existing labor contracts.
More background is here, and Holmes's office sent out a statement, which I've posted after the jump.
City Attorney Pete Holmes has selected Christie Law Group PLLC, Freimund Jackson Tardif LLP and Stafford Frey Cooper to represent the City and its Police Department against a range of allegations, including wrongful arrest and death, excessive use of force, police misconduct and violations of federal civil rights, in cases the City Attorney’s Office cannot handle due to conflicts or capacity issues.
The City’s exclusive and long-standing annual contract with Stafford Frey Cooper expired at the end of 2010. Going forward, police officers will be represented by torts attorneys in Holmes’ office and these three outside firms as circumstances require.
Robert L. Christie, the lead partner at www.ChristieLawGroup.com, is in his 31st year as a trial lawyer with emphasis on defending police officers and their departments in civil litigation arising from police action. He has defended hundreds of individual officers and scores of police departments throughout Washington in state and federal courts, including the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and U.S. Supreme Court.
As lead attorney for his firm’s proposal, Gregory Jackson (www.fjtlaw.com) has extensive experience working with SPD as a former City attorney prosecuting misdemeanors in Seattle Municipal Court and as a former King County deputy assistant and senior deputy prosecuting attorney. Jackson also represented law enforcement officers and their governmental agencies for six years as an assistant state attorney general in the torts division.
Stafford Frey Cooper has represented City of Seattle officers and the City in police action work for more than 40 years. Ted Buck, lead attorney for www.StaffordFrey.com on City work, has represented police officers through the Puget Sound region for 20 years. He has been first chair or shared primary trial supervision responsibilities in more than two dozen civil trials and inquests, including class actions. He also has been lead counsel for the City on many appeals before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, six of which led to published results.
In addition to general police action work, the Christie Law Group and Stafford Frey Cooper were tapped to be on-scene responders to requests for legal assistance from SPD officers involved in shootings and to represent them at inquests ordered by King County.
Holmes assembled an experienced and diverse panel to consider the written proposals. After discussion, review, comparison with the criteria and consensus approval, the panel invited several firms back to participate in oral presentations. Panel members included high-level CAO staff and outside experts, including Nicholas Metz, deputy chief at SPD; Bruce Hori, the City’s risk manager; George Mattson, retired King County Superior Court judge; John Strait, ethics professor at Seattle University Law School, and Anne Levinson, retired Municipal Court judge and the current auditor of SPD’s Office of Professional Accountability.
“I was particularly pleased to see the emphasis on quality representation and sensitivity to the interests of the City and the individual officers in assuring that outside law firms selected will be fine advocates for such cases,” commented Strait, associate professor of law at Seattle University School of Law.
“Lawsuits involving police agencies and police officers often involve issues of great public concern and the potential for significant taxpayer costs,” Levinson said. “In seeking proposals for this work and adding in-house counsel, the City Attorney found an effective way to better serve the public, the officers and the City, as well as provide more ongoing policy and legal advice to the Police Department.”
In conducting reference checks, the panel contacted police department clients, city managers, city attorneys, insurance companies, claims adjusters, opposing counsel and members of the judiciary. Emphasis was placed on the members of each firm who were likely to be lead counsel for the City and its employees in police action cases.
The austere budget climate motivated Holmes to attract more outside practitioners to represent SPD in civil cases. The City can realize substantial savings through a competitive process and CAO’s lower internal hours costs. Holmes said, “It’s a tough time budget-wise. Savings on legal fees translate to more officers on the street. There’s a direct connection.”
Equally important, the City will be able to play a more supportive role in policy – by having a closer working relationship with the individual officers.
Aside from the need to pare costs, Holmes noted he has been concerned over the prior lack of a competitive process in selecting and retaining legal counsel. An extensive review of proposals by firms specializing in this work furthers reduced pricing for legal services and increases — leading to the best quality representation, he said.
Holmes’ move was supported by the City Council, which agreed during last year’s budget deliberations to add funding for two torts lawyers plus a paralegal and legal assistant. Handling the bulk of police defense work inside the CAO are Brian Maxey, who previously represented New York City police, and Dominique Jinhong, an experienced federal litigator and former Thurston County prosecutor.
Holmes continually kept the Seattle Police Officer’s Guild and the Seattle Police Management Association informed of his decisions and the procedures. Both unions disagree with Holmes’ decisions and have filed unfair labor practice complaints. In a letter to SPOG after he took office, Holmes wrote, "the selection of counsel for city employees is a decision vested within the discretion of the City Attorney, and is not subject to collective bargaining.”
“In all cases, the City Attorney intends to provide police officers with the same quality of or better legal representation and support they have received in the past,” the request for qualifications stated. “The City Attorney will place the qualifying attorneys on a list to be provided to the Seattle Police Department for distribution to its officers, Seattle Police Officer’s Guild and Seattle Police Management Association.” Formal requests for qualifications and proposals attracted responses from 13 firms, including Lee Smart; Ogden Murphy Wallace; Keating Bucklin; Northcraft Bigby Biggs; Patterson Buchanan; Forsberg & Umlauf; Kenyon Disend; Cozen O’Connor; Karr Tuttle; and Scheer & Zehnder.