This page provides a general overview of civil service laws in Washington State for city, town and county public safety employees (police officers, deputy sheriffs, and firefighters), including information on the creation and operation of the civil service commission, and examples of local rules.
For a list of key civil service court decisions and legal interpretations, see our page Civil Service Court Decisions and AG Opinions.
Purpose of Civil Service
Civil service in local government seeks to curb political favoritism and remove the coercive pressures that once caused public employees to contribute money and time to partisan political candidates, to the detriment of the work for which they were paid.
Civil service state laws help assure that firefighters and law enforcement officers are recruited through open competition, hired and promoted on the basis of merit, and are demoted, suspended, removed from office, or discharged only for cause.
When Is Civil Service Required?
For Washington's cities and towns, civil service is required for:
- Firefighters by chapter 41.08 RCW - When a city or town has any full-time paid firefighters.
- Police by chapter 41.12 RCW - When the city or town has at least three full-time paid police officers, including the chief. Those cities that have six or more full-time officers may exclude the police chief from civil service coverage and an additional number of positions depending on the total number of department personnel (RCW 41.12.050).
For Washington counties, civil service is required for the sheriff's office by chapter 41.14 RCW.
When Is Civil Service Not Required?
- Police departments of "not more than two persons, including the chief of police" (RCW 41.12.010) or for departments composed entirely of volunteers.
- Fire and police chiefs, appointed after July 1, 1987, may be removed from civil service by vote of the city council or commission. See RCW 41.08.050, and 41.12.050.
- The county sheriff and certain "unclassified positions" may also be removed from civil service by vote of the city council or commission. See RCW 41.14.070.
- Fire protection districts may - but are not required to - provide for civil service for their fully-paid officers. See RCW 52.30.040; Roberts v. Fire Protection Dist., 44 Wn. App. 744 (1986).
Local Civil Service Rules
The following is an excellent resource that has undoubtedly served as the basis for the rules of many jurisdictions.
- Model Civil Service Rules for Washington Local Governments (2006 with 2008 update), by P. Stephen DiJulio, Foster Pepper PLLC
For a selected list of examples of local rules in Washington State, see Examples of Civil Service Rules.
Local Rules must "Substantially Accomplish" State Regulations
Local rules for public safety employees may differ among the covered jurisdictions (except for deputy sheriffs), as differing local rules may still be sustainable, if they "substantially accomplish" the purpose of the state provisions.
Note that the civil service rules that apply to other systems, such as Seattle's civil service system for non-public safety employees, do not necessarily follow the same rules established by state law, since their systems are governed by local rules, ordinances, or charters.
Civil Service Commission Creation and Operation
Both city and county civil service laws, require the appointment of a civil service commission, assuming the city, town, or county must provide for civil service. See RCW 41.08.030, 41.12.030, and 41.14.030.
A single civil service commission may deal with both police and fire employees.
Appointments to the commission are usually made by the mayor, city manager, or board of county commissioners, and the persons appointed are not subject to confirmation.
Membership and Residency Requirements
A civil service commission has three members.
Each commission member must be a citizen of the United States and an elector of the county in which he or she resides . An "elector" is a person who is a citizen of the United States, aged 18 years or older, and a resident (Washington State Const. art. VI, § 1).
Each commission member must also have been a resident of the city or town for which he or she will serve for at least three years immediately prior to appointment.
In case of a county civil service commission, a resident of the county must have been a resident for two years before appointment. Counties having a population of less than 40,000 may join with other counties to create a combined civil service commission (RCW 41.14.040). In a combined county commission, members need only meet the residency requirements for one of the combined counties.
At the time of appointment, no more than two of the commission members may be "adherents to the same political party." (According to one commentator, however, the political party limitation is of questionable legal authority and is, in any case, regularly ignored.)
Commission members serve without compensation, although they may have their expenses reimbursed.
Term of Office
Commissioners, except for the initial three appointees, serve six-year terms, but may be removed, following written notice and a hearing, for incompetence, incompatibility, dereliction of duty, malfeasance, or for "other good cause."
The civil service commission's duties include the following:
- Make rules for operation of the civil service system that are consistent with state law.
- Give practical tests to determine the capacity of persons examined to perform duties of the position sought.
- Conduct investigations and prepare reports.
- Hear and determine appeals or complaints.
- Provide for, develop and hold competitive tests to determine relative qualifications of candidates and, as result of the testing process, prepare eligibility lists.
- Certify to the appointing authority the name (or names) of the individual(s) ranked highest on the eligibility list.
- Keep records.
- Approve payrolls.
See RCW 41.08.040, 41.08.120, 41.12.040, 41.12.120, 41.14.060, and 41.14.150.
The commission is required to meet at least monthly. See RCW 41.08.040, 41.12.040 and 41.14.050.
The city, town, or county that establishes the civil service commission provides "suitable and convenient rooms and accommodations and cause[s] the same to be furnished, heated, lighted and supplied." See RCW 41.08.180, 41.12.180, and 41.14.200.
Secretary and Chief Examiner Appointment and Duties
Once a civil service commission has been created, its members, following a competitive examination, appoint a secretary and chief examiner.
For cities and towns, the examination may either be open to city or town citizens or limited to persons already employed in the police, fire or other departments. See RCW 41.08.040 and 41.12.040.
In counties, the examination must be open to all qualified citizens of the county; the appointee, however, may not be an employee of the sheriff's department. See RCW 41.14.050.
The local rules of a city or town can probably eliminate the residency requirement, since their regulations need only "substantially accomplish the purpose" of the state civil service laws.
County statutes are less flexible, though, and it is likely the secretary and chief examiner must, as the statue requires, be a county resident. See RCW 41.08.010, 41.12.010, and 41.14.010; generally, Deputy Sheriff's Guild v. Comm'rs (1979).
For a discussion of the residency requirements established by statute for the secretary and chief examiner, see AGO 1989 No. 20.
The secretary and chief examiner:
- Keeps the commission's records and preserves its reports.
- Supervises and keeps records of all examinations.
- Performs other duties as requested by the commission.
In some jurisdictions, the duties of secretary and chief examiner are performed by an existing employee, such as by the human resources director.
Examination and Eligibility Registers
One of the civil service commission's more important duties is the conduct of competitive examinations to determine the "merit, efficiency and fitness" of persons seeking appointment or promotion to classified civil service positions.
Qualifications of Applicants
Applicants for appointment must be United States citizens or a lawful permanent resident, and able to read and write the English language. In cities and towns, candidates must also "be of an age suitable for the position applied for, in ordinary good health, of good moral character and of temperate and industrious habits." See RCW 41.08.070, 41.12.070 and 41.14.100.
If the position sought is in law enforcement, the agency may reject an application if it deems it does not have the resources (materials, funding and staff time) to conduct the background investigation required by chapter RCW 43.101, that is, to verify immigrant or citizenship status as either a citizen of the United States or a lawful permanent resident.
Tests are to be practical and consist only of subjects which will fairly determine the capacity of the candidates to perform the duties of the position sought; the examination may include tests of physical fitness and manual skill. See RCW 41.08.040(2), RCW 41.12.040 (2), and RWC 41.14.060(2).
State law does not dictate the kind of testing required, and the courts, in O'Brien v. Civil Service Commission, have concluded commissions have broad discretion in determining the content and subjects for examinations.
Not all tests are necessarily given to all candidates nor at the same time. Commissions sometimes wait until the appointing authority is actually ready to make an appointment before giving the higher-ranked candidates "final" and often more costly tests, such as drug, psychological, and polygraph tests.
Once tested, passing candidates are placed according to their scores onto an eligibility register used for making appointments or promotions.
Veterans who pass an examination are given a "scoring criteria status" (formerly termed a "preference") in the development of the eligibility register. The term "veteran" is defined at RCW 41.04.005.
Veteran’s Scoring Criteria Status
What is a Veteran's Scoring Criteria Status?
A scoring criteria status (formerly a preference status) is the addition of a certain percentage to the "passing mark, grade or rating" received in a competitive examination by a veteran as defined in RCW 41.04.005 and RCW 41.04.010.
The percentage, which varies with the category of veteran, is based "upon a possible rating of one hundred points as perfect.” Under this scheme, for example, a veteran entitled to a 10% scoring criteria who scores a passing grade of 80 out of a possible 100 would receive an additional 8 points for a total score of 88.
What Veterans Qualify for What Scoring Criteria Status?
There are four categories of veterans to which the scoring criteria status applies. A base requirement of each category is that the person has received from any branch of the armed forces an honorable discharge, or a discharge for physical reasons with an honorable record, or a discharge with a receipt of a United States Department of Defense discharge document (DD Form 214; NGB form 22, or their equivalent or successor discharge paperwork that characterizes his or service as honorable). The four categories are:
1) Veterans who served during a period of war or in an armed conflict and do not receive military retirement. Veterans in this category receive a 10% scoring criteria added to passing mark, grade, or rating of competitive exams until their first appointment. This "first appointment" limitation means that, if a veteran has gotten a job with the 10% scoring criteria status, he or she may not use it to obtain another job, even with another agency (AGO 1974 No. 22). Also, it may not be used in a promotional exam.
Note that this one-time limitation applies only to the use of the veterans' scoring criteria status that is authorized by RCW 41.04.010. The fact that a veteran may have obtained a job in another state using that state’s veteran’s preference provisions does not impact this state’s veterans’ preference under RCW 41.04.010.
Veterans who served during a "period of war" as defined in RCW 41.04.005, need not have served in a combat zone or hostile environment to qualify; simply being in the armed forces during such a period, in addition to not receiving military retirement, is sufficient. A "period of war" is defined by RCW 41.04.005 to include, in addition to the two world wars, the following:
- The Korean conflict
- The Vietnam era, which means:
- The period beginning on February 28, 1961, and ending on May 7, 1975, in the case of a veteran who served in the Republic of Vietnam during that period;
- The period beginning August 5, 1964, and ending on May 7, 1975;
- The Persian Gulf War, which was the period beginning August 2, 1990, and ending on February 28, 1991, or ending on November 30, 1995, if the participant was awarded a campaign badge or medal for such period
- The period beginning on the date of any future declaration of war by Congress and ending on the date prescribed by presidential proclamation or concurrent resolution of Congress
- Any "armed conflicts," if the participant was awarded the respective campaign badge or medal, or if the service was such that a campaign badge or medal would have been awarded, except that the member already received a campaign badge or medal for a prior deployment during that same conflict.
2) Veterans who did not serve during a period of war or who are receiving military retirement. This category of veterans, which includes any veteran not covered by the first category, is entitled to a 5% scoring criteria status. Like the first category, it may be used only until a veteran's first appointment and may not be used in any promotional exam.
3) Peacetime veterans and others who have fulfilled their military service obligations. This category of veterans receives a 5% scoring criteria status that applies until the veteran's first employment; it cannot be used in a promotional examination. Qualifying veterans in this category include:
- A member in any branch of the armed forces of the United States, including the national guard and armed forces reserves, who has fulfilled his or her initial military service obligation;
- A member of the women's air forces service pilots;
- A member of the armed forces reserves, national guard, or coast guard, and has been called into federal service by a presidential select reserve call up for at least one hundred eighty cumulative days;
- A civil service crewmember with service aboard a U.S. army transport service or U.S. naval transportation service vessel in oceangoing service from December 7, 1941, through December 31, 1946; or
- A member of the Philippine armed forces/scouts during the period of armed conflict from December 7, 1941, through August 15, 1945.
4) Veterans who were called to active military service from employment with a city or county or other political subdivision. This category receives a 5% scoring criteria status that is added to promotional examinations until the first promotion only. (Note that this category of veterans is protected when returning to employment from military duty by the federal Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act.) Of course, veterans in this category could also qualify in any of the above two categories when seeking initial employment with another agency covered by RCW 41.04.010.
Are There Procedural Requirements for Implementing a Veteran's Scoring Criteria Status?
RCW 41.04.010 does not impose any specific procedural requirements. However, we recommend that your jurisdiction provide the necessary questions on employment applications for a veteran to claim the appropriate scoring criteria. Eligible veterans are entitled to the scoring criteria status regardless of whether your jurisdiction provides for it in its civil service rules.
Are There Time Limitations to claim Veteran’s Scoring Criteria Status?
There is no time limit on when a veteran may claim scoring criteria status.
Vacancy and Appointment Process
If a position in classified civil service becomes vacant or a new position is added, the appointing authority (mayor, city manager; or county sheriff, with consent of county commissioners) must request ("requisitions") the civil service commission for the names and addresses of those persons eligible for appointment. See RCW 41.08.100, 41.12.100, and 41.14.130.
In response, the commission certifies, for cities and towns, the person standing highest on the eligibility list willing to accept employment. See RCW 41.08.100 and 41.12.100.
For county sheriff departments, the commission certifies the top three candidates. See RCW 41.14.130.
While statutes require city and town commissions certify the top candidate (the "Rule of One"), some jurisdictions have adopted local rules allowing the certification of the top three (or five) candidates (the "Rule of Three"). The "Rule of Three" has been upheld as "substantially accomplishing" the civil service rules in Firefighters v. Walla Walla. The "Rule of Three" is statutorily in effect for counties. See RCW 41.14.130.
Conflicts with Collective Bargaining Policies
Appointment (or other) procedures agreed to as result of collective bargaining, if in conflict with civil services rules, will prevail over the civil service rules, unless the local civil service commission is similar in scope, structure, and authority to the state personnel board (and it is unlikely that the local commission will be similar). See Spokane and Spokane Police Guild vs. Spokane Civil Service Commission (1999), review denied (2000).
Sometimes there is no register for the position sought to be filled. In those instances, the civil service commission certifies the person (or persons) highest on the "list held appropriate for the class."
Appointments from the alternative lists are often referred to as "temporary" or "provisional" appointments. See RCW 41.08.100, 41.12.100, and 41.14.130.
Temporary or provisional appointments shall not continue for a period longer than four months; nor shall any person receive more than one provisional appointment or serve more than four months as provisional appointee in any one fiscal year.
See RCW 41.08.040(9) and 41.12.040(9).
Some cities and towns, nevertheless, provide for longer temporary appointments and/or for extensions. Such practices can likely be justified, so long as the local rules "substantially accomplish" the civil service statutory requirements; counties appear to have much less flexibility in differing from their statutory limitations.
County appointments, likewise, are for a period not to exceed four months; however, the appointment can be extended for a period up to one year, if the county continues to advertise and test for the position. If after one year there are less than three persons on the eligible list, the appointing authority may fill the position with any person on the list. See RWC 41.14.060(7).
An appointment is not complete (and an appointee does not receive all of the civil service protections) until after a probationary period is completed.
Purpose of Probation
Probation allows the employer to train the appointee and determine whether he or she will be able to actually perform the duties of the position.
How Long is the Probationary Period?
For cities and towns, the probationary period is three to six months. See RCW 41.08.100, and 41.12.100.
For counties, the probationary period is for one year. See RCW 41.14.130.
As is true for other rules, some cities or towns have established longer probationary period than required by statute; such individual differences can be justified if they "substantially accomplish" the purpose of the civil service laws.
In Westport, for example, the city adopted a one-year probationary period, allowing supervisory personnel a longer period to judge appointees, especially during the summer months when tourism significantly increases the city's population and the police department's workload. See Arbogast v. Westport (1976), and Samuels v. Lake Stevens (1988).
Can an Employee on Probation Be Discharged?
While a person who has completed probation can only be removed from his or her position "for cause," the same is not true for someone on probation. A person on probation may be removed for virtually any reason, so long as it is not for a discriminatory or other inappropriate reason.
Disciplinary Actions and Discharges
Unlike "at will" employees, an employee covered by civil service has certain job protections; the employee may only be removed, suspended, demoted, or discharged from his or her position "for cause" and then only after a written accusation, set out in general terms, has been given. See RCW 41.08.090, 41.12.090, and 41.14.120.
If the employee objects or disagrees with the disciplinary action, he or she may submit a written "demand" to the civil service commission for an investigation. The demand for a hearing/investigation must be filed within ten days of the employment action. The commission must then schedule a public hearing for an investigation. See RCW 41.08.090, 41.12.090, and 41.14.120.
In counties, the hearing should be held within 30 days of the demand's receipt. The hearing is confined to the determination of whether the employment action (removal, suspension, etc.) was "for just cause." After the investigation is complete, the commission issues a written determination (within ten days for commissions serving a sheriff's department) either affirming, reversing, or modifying the employment action. See RCW 41.14.120.
What Is "For Cause"?
Each of the three civil service statutes sets out grounds for discharge, reductions or deprivation of privilege, which include:
- Incompetency, inefficiency or inattention to or dereliction of duty;
- Dishonesty, intemperance, immoral conduct, insubordination, discourteous treatment of the public or a fellow employee, or any other act of omission or commission tending to injure the public service; or any other willful failure on the part of the employee to properly conduct himself; or any willful violation of civil service statutes, rules, or regulations;
- Mental or physical unfitness for the position which the employee holds;
- Dishonest, disgraceful, immoral or prejudicial conduct;
- Drunkenness or use of intoxicating liquors, narcotics, or any other habit forming drug, liquid or preparation to such extent the use interferes with the efficiency or mental or physical fitness of the employee, or which precludes the employee from properly performing the functions and duties of any position under civil service;
- Conviction of a felony, or a misdemeanor, involving moral turpitude;
- Any other act or failure to act which in the judgment of the civil service commissioners is sufficient to show the offender to be an unsuitable and unfit person to be employed in the public service.
See RCW 41.08.080, 41.12.080, and 41.14.110.
Examples of Civil Service Rules
Rules for Public Safety Employees Only
- Battle Ground Civil Service Rules (2016)
- Des Moines Civil Service Commission Rules and Regulations (2015)
- Kelso Civil Service Rules and Regulations (2014)
- Wenatchee Civil Service Commission General Rules and Regulations (2022)
- Spokane County Civil Service Commission Rules and Regulations (2016)