Before work, Sergeant Rich O'Neill dons a blue Seattle Police Department (SPD) uniform, pins on a badge, and begins his commute—just like 1,250 other Seattle police officers and sergeants. But O'Neill never actually patrols Seattle streets. In fact, he hasn't worked a shift as a cop since 2006, but Seattle residents still pay him $109,703 a year.
O'Neill, 52, is the president of the Seattle Police Officers' Guild (SPOG), the union representing all the city's beat cops. He retains the title of "sergeant" per the terms of the city contract that he negotiates on behalf of Seattle officers. His other primary function is speaking on behalf of these officers, who are prohibited by the SPD from commenting to the press. But as the US Department of Justice (DOJ) begins an investigation into excessive use of force and discriminatory policing exhibited by Seattle police officers, many are calling O'Neill SPD's biggest public relations problem.
"Rich O'Neill does a great deal of damage to the community's perception of officers," says Nicole Gaines, president of the Loren Miller Bar Association, a civil rights group that's working with the DOJ on its investigation. Gaines argues that O'Neill doesn't just speak for officers—his rhetoric pits them against the public they're sworn to protect.
Others put it more bluntly:
"The city pays Rich O'Neill to be a total dick," says a city hall staffer familiar with current police contract negotiations, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "That's his job—being a total dick. That's what the public sees."
O'Neill didn't return several calls for comment (his secretary said he would probably never call back). But his words in the Guardian, SPOG's monthly newspaper, and his actions speak for themselves.
"It is extremely frustrating when individuals with zero police training feel qualified to voice their opinions on police actions," O'Neill lamented in the Guardian about recent police scrutiny. What was so "frustrating"? The media "frenzy" and public outcry after several controversial incidents that led to the federal investigation of the SPD: Officer Ian Birk fatally shooting John T. Williams (the shooting was found unjustified), Detective Shandy Cobane threatening to "beat the fucking Mexican piss" out of an innocent suspect (an internal investigation reportedly has recommended Cobane be fired), an undercover officer kicking a juvenile who had his hands up (the Washington State Patrol is currently investigating the officer), and others.
The Guardian also regularly publishes inflammatory articles—joking about shooting African Americans and showing contempt for civilian oversight, for example—all written by Seattle officers within O'Neill's fold. For example, last fall, Officer Steve Pomper wrote that city officials conducting racial and social justice training are "the enemy" and "the city is inflicting its socialist policies" on officers. Pomper is now the subject of an SPD investigation (the exact nature of the investigation is still undisclosed).
Meanwhile, O'Neill has stood behind the most controversial cops. He calls Birk "a good young man." In defending Pomper, he writes, "Many in Seattle can be very intolerant of anyone who is not a left-leaning Democrat."
But while O'Neill stands by his rhetoric as a matter of the union's free speech, the department is trying to do damage control. "It doesn't do the union any good or the department any good," Police Chief John Diaz said at a community meeting in January. "You can't hide and just say, 'Well, this is my union paper.' It's there for anyone to take a look at. It reflects badly. It degrades trust in our police department."
"Without trust, police officers can't do their jobs," says US Attorney Jenny Durkan, the top prosecutor in Washington, whose office is leading the investigation into the SPD with the DOJ. While investigating use-of-force complaints, Durkan says her team will examine issues of trust and make recommendations to the department. "Officers rely on citizens to give them good information, to let them patrol their streets," she continues. "Trust goes to the heart of safety. They have to trust that they're welcome—that they can get out of their cars and be safe. It's the linchpin to good policing."
Seattle police officers are the highest paid law enforcement officers in the state. The wages start at $64,000, and after a decade of service, most officers make well over $100,000 a year, including overtime. But instead of building community trust, their most public face, O'Neill, is overtly political and confrontational.
For example, O'Neill has used his paid position to campaign against candidates he dislikes. In 2009, he and SPOG members picketed city attorney candidate Pete Holmes, who used to serve on a police oversight panel. O'Neill and others blocked his campaign signs and accused him of "divisiveness" and "grandstanding." And last year, O'Neill clashed with Holmes again (who won the election for city attorney despite SPOG's campaigning), this time when Holmes suggested that cash-poor Seattle use city attorneys to defend misconduct lawsuits against Seattle officers instead of the highly priced private firm Stafford Frey Cooper. O'Neill's response? "We will file legal action against the city," he said.
SPD won't directly comment on O'Neill's behavior. But city officials are aware that he is a public relations liability. "In city hall, there's general agreement that Rich's comments are not helpful to his own cause," said a city council member who asked to remain anonymous.
The DOJ investigation into SPD's police misconduct and public trust issues has no timeline, Durkan says. And thus far, O'Neill appears to be playing nice. "[SPOG's] statements to us have always been, 'We'll be as cooperative as we can be,'" says Durkan.
But whether or not the DOJ finds O'Neill and the union to be part of the problem, it's unlikely that the city can be rid of him anytime soon. In January, union officers reelected O'Neill to his third three-year term with over 78 percent of the vote.