Ron Smith, president of the Seattle Police Officers Guild, speaks to reporters on Wednesday.
Ron Smith, president of the Seattle Police Officers' Guild, speaks to reporters on Wednesday. Alex Garland

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The head of the Seattle police union that represents rank-and-file officers says he faced a backlash after he told his officers to get with the times or get out of Seattle.

"If you don't like the politics here," Smith said to his fellow officers in a no-holds-barred interview with The Stranger on February 18, "then leave and go to a place that serves your worldview."

Because that kind of critical talk is so rarely heard from police union officials, his comments made national news, and earned him plenty of plaudits. Wonkette covered the story this way: "Decent Seattle Police Union Head Risks Getting Thrown Out Of Police Union."

Sure enough, some of the union's 1,300 officer-members were outraged by the ultimatum, Smith told me yesterday at a press conference announcing SPD's new cadre of assistant chiefs. They were pissed off about the fact that he'd spoken at all with a reporter from, god forbid, The Stranger.

I asked what happened after the interview. "We had a membership meeting [six days later] that went for four hours," Smith said. "I stood there and listened to all their concerns... There were some calls for me to step down."

On the other side of the coin, Smith said, plenty of rank-and-file officers have thanked him for speaking out.

When it comes to his union members, he said, "I support them. I will fight for their rights and I will fight for their contract. But my leadership style is a little bit different than people from the past."

He added: "And in two years, if the membership wants to replace me, I'll be glad to go back to my last assignment."

Then, returning to his bold tone, Smith continued: "I ask somebody to stand in my shoes at this time in history, with the things we're facing in the city of Seattle, with all the scrutiny that we're under, and ask how they could do a better job."

The department is under a federal consent decree to curb a pattern of excessive force and address concerns about racially biased policing. In the past, SPOG has generally thumbed its nose at the Department of Justice, mocked protesters and political opponents, and intervened to block common-sense reforms. But Smith may be turning the page. Asked about his comments, police chief Kathleen O'Toole said Smith has "demonstrated extraordinary leadership and is taking some courageous positions."

Officers who do things wrong, embarrass SPD, or violate community trust will be held accountable, O'Toole said. "I appreciate that the union leadership feels the same way."

In recent months, O'Toole has instituted a new, strongly worded social media policy. And within six hours of my February 6 report on Officer Sam Byrd's troubling Twitter comments, O'Toole placed him on administrative leave pending an investigation.

But the real meat of reform has to be grinded out in contract negotiations with SPOG, which are ongoing. Critics question whether Mayor Ed Murray, who SPOG endorsed and who appointed O'Toole, will go soft on the union in the negotiating process. One city hall insider close to the negotiations, which are shrouded under a confidentiality clause, said the city's negotiators aren't pushing hard for a range for reforms. And Murray largely missed the opportunity to advance the reform process during 2014, according to the department's accountability auditor.

Smith himself has vowed to fight to keep in place an utterly discredited appeals process for disciplinary decisions handed down by the chief.

For her part, O'Toole appears to be hoping for more "extraordinary leadership" from Smith.

"The old days of contentious labor relations—I think that's counterproductive," O'Toole said yesterday. "We sit on opposite sides of the table during collective bargaining and on disciplinary hearings, but by working together, we're able to accomplish so much more."

Another mark of SPOG's potentially fresh turn is its entry into the the King County Labor Council, a nominally left-wing network of public and private sector unions.

In the February issue of SPOG's internal newsletter, a front-page article identifies Officer Tom McLaughlin as one of the union's two new delegates to the council. "I'm sure at times we'll feel right in the lion's den," he's quoted as saying, "but I'm also sure we will also be building some new foundations and strong alliances. This will be especially important as we are in contract negotiations."

Any good union leader "should be in a little bit of political trouble," said Dave Freiboth, the head of labor council, because there's often tension between the two poles of what obstinate segments of the union want and what the broader public wants.

Smith appears to be walking that tightrope.

"Sometimes you have to have hard conversations with your members," Freiboth said. "I think that's what Ron is doing. And the good members appreciate it."

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