What Some Seattle Cops Think the Problem Is
They Think the City's "Socialist" Agenda Has Gone Too Far in Protecting Racial Minorities, Curbing Coarse Language, and Scrutinizing Officers Accused of Misconduct
The Seattle Police Officers' Guild, the employees union representing approximately 1,350 sworn officers, publishes a newspaper each month called the Guardian. Written by and for cops, it's not online, not for sale, and not in newspaper boxes. Most Seattle residents have never seen a copy. But if they had been reading the Guardian over the past year, while the city grappled with several high-profile incidents involving officers using force against racial minorities, they would've gained insight into the views of some police officers.
Take, for instance, last month's issue featuring an editorial by Officer Steve Pomper, who's angry about the five-year-old program to train all city employees on racial disparities and profiling issues.
"The city, using its Race and Social Justice Initiative, continues its assault on traditional and constitutional American values such as self-reliance, equal justice, and individual liberty," Pomper begins. "But more to our concern, the city is inflicting its socialist policies directly on the Seattle Police Department."
What's that "socialist" program he's so upset about? Approximately 1,800 officers have taken a "Perspectives in Profiling" class, says Kathryn Olson, director of the SPD's Office of Professional Accountability. The eight-hour workshop involves officers watching several video clips of potentially suspicious behavior and discussing how they would handle the situations.
Pomper described the experience this way: "The 'Perspectives in Profiling' class (or as one officer put it, one of our 'de-policing classes') served as a good way to learn what the enemy is up to. (Yes, enemy. A liberal after my money in taxes may be my opponent, but a socialist attacking the Constitution and my liberty is my enemy.)"
Not all of the articles in the Guardian focus on "the enemy." Many feature nuts-and-bolts fundraising updates or retirement announcements. However, editorials relating to police conduct often contain incendiary themes: disdain for civilian oversight, the idea that city hall is too liberal for its own good, and an insistence that city-sponsored programs pushing for racial and social justice must be stopped.
Pomper says officers should "take the City's use of Social Justice terminology and implementation of policy seriously and oppose it in every legal way possible."
Even measured articles, such as one in September by union president Rich O'Neill, express resentment for public scrutiny of police work. He mentions the "media frenzy" after SPD officer Ian Birk fatally shot Native American wood carver John T. Williams. (Williams was shot in the side four seconds after being given commands from the officer, and his legal carving knife was found closed. This week, King County District Court is holding an inquest into the death.) O'Neill lamented, "It is extremely frustrating when individuals with zero police training feel qualified to voice their opinions on police actions."
Then there's a November article by Officer Clayton Powell, who works in the South Precinct, discussing the phrase "mother f**ker," which, he argues, is a "commonly used street term showing endearment to something or someone." He names a couple more endearing terms: "bitch" and "n***a." (Asterisks are his.)
"If I can communicate with someone in their primary language... it makes me a more effective officer," writes Powell. "Learn to accept and appreciate the direct method of in-your-face communication."
Asked what goal this sort of rhetoric serves, O'Neill says in an e-mail: "It is called free speech and freedom of the press. Officers have those rights, too."
Likewise, SPD spokesman Sean Whitcomb explains, "You're always going to find a diversity of opinions in a union newspaper." But he repeats in our interview, emphatically, that the department—especially the command staff—embraces the Race and Social Justice Initiative and knows that cussing at civilians is strictly against policy.
Still, that chasm between SPD's brass and beat cops like Pomper and Powell is exactly the concern of ACLU of Washington deputy director Jennifer Shaw. "The messengers who are talking to the people on the streets are the ones reading the Guardian," Shaw says. "I think comments like that send a message to people of color in our city that they are less valued." The ACLU has called for a federal probe into an "ongoing problem" of Seattle police officers using force on people of color.
Not that all cops give a shit what the ACLU thinks. In a December article, East Precinct officer Chris Leyba writes patronizingly, "There are ways in which civilian oversight does benefit us. Wait! Please don't break leather on those guns, ladies and gentlemen! I'm not an ACLU hipster or Urban League lackey in disguise." He argues—after joking that cops would pull their guns out at ACLU leaders, African-American leaders, or people advocating more police oversight—that civilian oversight is fine, but he calls citizen review boards "sideshows" that lack any disciplinary power and exist only for chiefs and sheriffs to provide an illusion of citizen accountability.
Olson, who runs the SPD's internal misconduct oversight program, says the articles don't represent "a widespread culture" but rather "reflect the values of the authors and very few others." Nonetheless, that is a perspective getting plenty of ink in the police union's official newspaper.
"The intended audience is the police department," says Whitcomb. "It's very police-y. It's specific jargon. They are writing to a specific audience."
At the request of the police guild, links to full articles from The Guardian have been removed from this article.