The January 2014 issue of the Seattle Police Officers Guild newspaper, the Guardian, has some interesting news. As we reported in December, current SPOG president Rich O'Neill is stepping down. This month's front page announces:
When the filing period closed, current Secretary-Treasurer, Detective Ron Smith, was the lone board member to run for President.
The fact that Smith will be SPOG president is also confirmed by documents related to the mayor's police chief search committees, which repeatedly call Smith the "incoming SPOG president."
Who the hell is this Ron Smith guy?
Well, since SPOG doesn't generally return our phone calls, I thought I'd have to rely on whatever the internet said. Which was, quickly: He used to edit the Guardian, where he once wrote that the city attorney should be booked into federal lockup in SeaTac for filing assault charges against an SPD officer. Whew! And two, he faced weapons charges five years ago after a shooting in a bar fight near a South Dakota motorcycle rally; though those charges were eventually completely dropped.
So I was all set to fire off a smartass post about how some big bike-gang lug was SPOG's new president, when I decided to pick up the phone and try 'em anyway, even though I had no hope of getting a call back. And then something weird happened: Within five minutes of me leaving a message, Smith was on the phone asking if I wanted to chat over a cup of coffee. Wait, what? Did he hear me right? Did he forget that we once illustrated his predecessor in the paper flipping a giant bird? Yeah, he did know about that. And yeah, he did still want to talk about his new role.
"I think it's unfortunate, during the course of trying to stand up for the rank-and-file officers, that the perception is that SPOG is an obstacle to reform or moving forward." So SPOG's not an obstacle to reform? "No," he says emphatically. But, uh, you can't exactly say they haven't been fighting the plan—SPOG literally filed suit to block it.
Smith says they're just doing their job as a union, not opposing reform. "I think that's a misnomer, that we opposed the consent decree... The city has an obligation to bargain the change with the union. That is our only demand, that the city uphold their end of the collective-bargaining process. [SPOG is] definitely not anti-reform. We're all for improving this police department. We understand that the federal judge has given a federal order to Merrick Bobb... And we only want the city to engage with us at the bargaining table on those issues that are mandatory subjects [of bargaining]—and there's probably very few of them."
If SPOG's not blocking reform, how does he plan to support it going forward? One way, says Smith, is "educating our members." As new department policies come out of the reform process, he says SPOG plans to help explain to rank and file officers what's changing and what they need to know about new standards and policies. "The other way I do it," he continues, "is to be open to meet with the monitor and the US attorney to discuss the progress of the reform and to answer questions that they have from our perspective on how things are going. I'm looking forward to open dialogue and to discussing issues both from the union’s perspective and the city’s perspective, the US attorney’s perspective."
I asked him about cultural problems within SPD, about a diverse city where not everyone feels like they get equal treatment from police. He says his approach to policing is basically the golden rule: "At the end of the day, if you're willing to treat people the way you want to be treated, there should never be an issue, no matter what neighborhood you're in." Policing, he says, is "public service. It's doing a job that most people don't want to do. And everybody in our communities deserves to have good law enforcement and public safety—fire service, too. Everyone relies on it. When I go home to my house, I'm no different from anybody."
And when things go wrong? He says officers would be wise to communicate with the public instead of clamming up. "When there's an incident that's questionable," says Smith, "if there's a dialogue between the police and the citizens, where they can explain what happened—and I think that's what this [new police training] LEED program is, Listen and Explain with Equity and Dignity–-if we can explain what we're doing and why we did it, I think that could solve some of these misperceptions... If we could just explain to people calmly and politely, I think a lot of people would understand." He adds: "And people have the right to ask what's going on." (I told him I'd let Dominic know about that last part.)
Of course, what'll really decide whether Smith is the beginning of a little bit brighter era at SPOG will be actions, not words. But it was nice to hear something other than spittle and outrage (or silence) from the top of SPOG. I guess we'll have to wait to see what happens next.