The Police Union Is Throwing a Tantrum as It Loses Influence
You may think that after a year of Seattle police officers being caught in scandal after scandal—so many that the Department of Justice launched a full-scale federal probe in March—the police union would cool its rhetoric. After all, the command staff of the police department (along with elected officials at City Hall) has laid a convincing veneer of reform on a troubled department (shuffling command staff, pledging transparency, disciplining officers). But no. The union representing the 1,350 sworn officers is mounting a backlash: The Seattle Police Officers' Guild (SPOG) is throwing an outright tantrum.
Consider the reaction to charges against Officer James Lee. City Attorney Pete Holmes charged the undercover officer—who had kicked a teenage boy in the groin and then kicked him again as the youth lay coiled on the floor—with assault. Holmes said on April 13 that "the officer must be held accountable."
Who does SPOG think should be held accountable?
Detective Ron Smith, editor of the Guardian, the police union's newspaper, wrote in last month's issue that the Department of Justice "should hook up Peter for MALICIOUS PROSECUTION, and book him into the Fed lock-up in SEATAC!!" Not only does SPOG say the officer should be exonerated, Smith calls Holmes's decision to press charges "a calculated and evil move" that "may temporarily please the rabid 5 percent" of Seattle denizens who resent police.
Officer Thomas McLaughlin (a SPOG board member), meanwhile, calls the prosecution "a giant dark step into the depths of madness."
SPOG president Sergeant Rich O'Neill wrote in the same issue, "It was the day that politics, rather than the rule of law, inspired a decision to formally charge an on duty officer." He says patronizingly, "Oh, but the suspect put his hands up!" He argues that the officer who kicked the boy was simply following protocol. "I am confident that the officer will be vindicated, but the damage is done," O'Neill adds. (He did not respond to a request for comment for this story.)
But this we know: The cop union is arguing that prosecuting this cop is "evil" and the city attorney should be held in a federal jail.
"It's hard to even dignify it with a response when it's so over the top," Holmes responds by phone. "I am not sure what the motives are—it's definitely hyperbole." As for the decision to charge Officer Lee, Holmes says that after the suspect was on the ground, "the subsequent kicks were unnecessary and amount to assault."
The quotes above are only a snapshot of the union's mind-set. In the May and April issues of the Guardian, SPOG compares the recent DOJ investigation to the federal government's bloody standoffs at Waco and Ruby Ridge. They express resentment of the city council's public safety committee chair and scrutiny from the mayor, suggest the six assistant SPD chiefs are "miserable in their inane positions," and call a "twisted fringe" of the city "the enemy" that has found "new allies... at the very top of SPD."
The last points hit the problem squarely.
SPOG is losing influence at City Hall—and even among SPD brass.
Originally bolstered by an anti-protester backlash in the 1960s and 1970s, SPOG gained influence when the city ceded some control of the department, delivering the union more power when negotiating new contracts. This mind-set continued under former mayor Greg Nickels and former city attorney Tom Carr, who granted SPOG a 23.5 percent pay raise between 2006 and 2010. Under Nickels and Carr, who enjoyed public-safety union endorsements in their reelection campaigns, the city appeased SPOG by neutering a civilian oversight board by preventing it from requesting specific case files.
But under the new regime of McGinn and Holmes, SPOG seems to be scrambling to find traction. Holmes vowed in May to file a lawsuit that would require the police department to name officers who have complaints of misconduct sustained against them. On June 1, Holmes announced he had found 12 bidders to compete with SPOG's preferred private law firm that defends officers on the city's dime (SPOG has threatened legal action). This year, McGinn also named John T. Williams Day, to honor a man shot and killed last August by a Seattle cop, and the council issued 11 police-accountability recommendations that SPOG insists would amount to contract violations if implemented. Amid all of the battles, the mayor's office has simply stopped bargaining the union contract that expired last December. And as this year's council election approaches, a SPOG endorsement is a veritable pox on a candidate—nearly all the union's candidates lost in 2009.
With little political capital in stock, SPOG is filing more labor complaints than city employees can ever remember being active at one time, a source said this month. SPOG is clearly not going down without a fight.
However, officials at City Hall—while they agree on very little else—appear to be in lockstep in their march to put a radically conservative, bullying cop union back in its place. One policy, contract, and prosecution at a time.
Tim Burgess, chair of the council's public safety committee (and a former Seattle cop), describes the relationship between city government and the police union as "strained, very strained." He acknowledges that in the past, SPOG "has not been very helpful" but is "confident we can reach agreements with them... through the collective bargaining process."
Burgess is probably right—the city will likely reach agreements with SPOG. But SPOG probably won't like it.