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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, July 15, 2016 - Volume 44 Issue 29
Seattle Police Officers Guild President resigns after social media controversy
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Seattle Police Officers Guild President resigns after social media controversy

by Shaun Knittel - SGN Associate Editor

Seattle Police Officers Guild (SPOG) President Ron Smith is resigning. Smith announced on Tuesday that he would step down at the end of this month. His departure announcement comes in the wake of an offensive Facebook post he made on the SPOG Facebook account on July 7 following news of the five police officers killed and six others wounded in Dallas, Texas, following a Black Lives Matter (BLM) protest, in which Smith stated that 'the hatred of law enforcement by a minority movement' is disgusting, seemingly blaming BLM for the loss of life. 'Heads in [sic] swivel brothers and sisters,' Smith's post continued, ending with #weshallovercome.

What Smith is alleging, albeit thinly veiled - that the BLM movement is somehow responsible for the Dallas shooting - is incorrect. The actions of Micah Johnson, 25, the man identified as the lone shooter, do not reflect the BLM movement in any way, shape, or form. By saying 'Black Lives Matter,' the activists are not saying that blue lives don't matter. They are, justifiably, calling attention to the disproportionate number of blacks killed by police in this country.

Johnson, who was killed by a bomb-carrying robot after a long standoff (during which he was reportedly laughing, singing, and bragging about training for the attack), was not a member of the BLM movement and did not represent the protesters that evening. We know this to be true, because according to Dallas Police Chief David Brown, during the long standoff with police following the shooting, Johnson said he 'wanted to kill white people, especially white officers,' and although he expressed sympathy with Black Lives Matter, he admitted he 'was not affiliated with any groups.'

The Facebook post led to nearly two dozen complaints of racial bias.

'I posted out of emotion,' Smith explained to media. The post was supposed to be in support of Dallas police, he added. 'It was blown out of proportion.'

'My words have been taken out of context; for that I am very sorry, and we have to move on,' Smith said.

In his resignation letter to SPOG members, Smith wrote, 'Recently in the heat of the moment, as our brothers and sisters were under attack in Dallas, I posted on the SPOG Facebook page something I intended to be supportive of our Dallas brothers and sisters as well as the outrage we all feel in the attacks on law enforcement across the country.'

'What the post was meant to say is that it is disgusting that a small segment of society perpetuates violence toward law enforcement officers across this country,' he continued. 'At no time was there any intent to apply blame to any organized group, only the small segment of society which has the propensity for violence toward law enforcement. We shall overcome meant just that; law enforcement will persevere and work through this time in history, just as law enforcement did after 9/11 and how local law enforcement did after we lost six local law enforcement officers in a six-week period in 2009, including Seattle Police Officer Tim Brenton. I regret that this post offended anyone, as that was not the intent in any way.'

Smith says that he poured his heart and soul into the organization for the past 16 years, 'whether it was as Guardian Editor, two terms as Position #3 on the SPOG Board, Secretary-Treasurer, and, in the last 27 months,' as SPOG president.

'I have been made aware that I have let the membership down, something that I deeply regret,' he concedes. 'I have never quit anything in my life except chewing tobacco; however, this is not about me; it's about the membership. We are living in very difficult times in law enforcement history, and we don't need any further distractions in moving down the reform road and in full compliance with the consent decree. With these things in mind, I am notifying you now that I will resign my position as President effective July 31, 2016. This will allow an adequate transition for Vice President Kevin Stuckey, who will assume the rest of my term, which expires March 1, 2017.'

Kevin Stuckey, an African-American police officer, is SPOG's representative on the Community Police Commission.

A controversial president
The Seattle Police Officers Guild is the largest police labor union in the Northwest and represents over 1,250 members. Guild members include all of the officers and sergeants on the Seattle Police Department. As a not-for-profit corporation, SPOG receives no funding from government agencies or tax dollars. SPOG strives to provide assistance to officers, their families, and the community. Over the years, according to the organization's portfolio, SPOG has been able to make funds available to families facing life-threatening illnesses, sponsor children's athletic leagues, and participate in many charitable events. Most importantly, say SPOG officials, they work hard to protect the benefits, working conditions, training, and equipment of their members so they can 'continue to work hard to protect all of us in the community.'

Smith was both well received and ill received during his tenure as SPOG president. He succeeded Sergeant Rich O'Neill. O'Neill, who served as SPOG president from 2006 to 2014, was considered by many to be a public relations liability. Under his watch, the US Department of Justice (DOJ) began its investigation into excessive use of force and discriminatory policing exhibited by Seattle police officers. When Smith first took office, he promised accountability. He said that his members would cooperate with the DOJ and not block or hinder reform efforts in the department. Under his leadership, SPOG didn't join the failed lawsuit that sought to block reform efforts, just as he had promised.

After one year as SPOG president, Smith told media that his message to cops in Seattle was that they needed to adapt to the city's liberal political climate or get out. That is when everything changed.

After an uproar within the union and calls for his resignation, Smith seemed to change. Last August, Smith said he believed the federal government is waging a 'war on cops.' SPOG posted a link on its Facebook page to a video of commentary by Fox News contributor Kimberly Guilfoyle, who said, 'The White House and this administration have created a war against police officers in this country with their allegations [and] false assertions that there is widespread and pervasive racism in the United States of America that lives in the heart and minds of the men and women in blue.'

SPOG added the caption 'Truth.'

Smith confirmed that he was the one who posted the link and wrote the caption. When a reporter from The Stranger asked him via text message about his views, he ultimately said, 'Yep! The administration's message has fueled the war on cops!! Quote me!!'

But, such as in the case with the recent ill-conceived post, SPOG deleted the Facebook post about the so-called war on cops.

'I absolutely disagree with his characterization,' said Seattle Mayor Murray back in August 2015. 'If anything, this president has helped lead an honest conversation about racial justice, not just about policing.'

Murray said that Smith was wrong for posting it. 'I'm a little taken aback that he posted to it, because he's said some fairly progressive things to you and to the media in general,' he said. 'He's been willing to step up and talk about how the police need to change their behavior on a whole series of issues.'

Murray said Smith made his job and the chief's job a lot more difficult.

Smith earned the ire of the public when he came out in strong support of Seattle police officer Cynthia Whitlatch, who faced termination over the arrest on July 9, 2014, of William Wingate, a 69-year-old African-American man, who was carrying a golf club as a cane but whom she accused of wielding it as a weapon.

Under department disciplinary procedures, Whitlatch was given the opportunity to plead her case at a meeting in August 2015 with Police Chief Kathleen O'Toole before O'Toole issued a final decision on whether to terminate Whitlatch or reprimand her and keep her on the force.

An internal investigation into Whitlatch's arrest of Wingate found a variety of policy violations, including biased policing. And although video was produced, taken from the dash cam inside of Whitlatch's patrol car, showed her lying about the incident to Wingate and an officer responding to her call for backup, Smith vehemently supported Whitlatch.

Ultimately O'Toole terminated Whitlatch. Smith came back from vacation to be with Whitlatch when she was informed of the Office of Professional Accountability (OPA) findings.

Along with his criticism of the OPA, Smith argued that O'Toole 'caved under the enormous political pressure and made this decision. The department has clearly violated the collective bargaining agreement section 3.6B, and as such an appeal will be filed if requested by Officer Whitlach.'

Smith was referring to provisions in the SPOG contract that limit the amount of time the department can spend on an internal investigation. He vowed to appeal the decision to fire Whitlatch. Whitlatch stated she would fight her for her job, and Smith said that the union would back her up.

Resign or be fired
Smith said Wednesday, just one day after his resignation was announced, that he decided to resign over the controversial Facebook post because he expected his board to ask for his resignation.

Smith says the board's anger is rooted in his approach to federally mandated reforms, his cooperation with Chief Kathleen O'Toole, and his acceptance of accountability measures as part of a tentative contract with the city.

Smith told the Seattle Times that three members of his board told him the membership was furious over various issues.

'I think it's a red herring. I think, what do they say, never let a good crisis go to waste? And I think that's what's happened here,' Smith said in the interview. He apologized for any offense he caused by the Facebook post.

Smith says he was misunderstood and accepts the criticism he has received, in particular, the use of the civil rights anthem 'We Shall Overcome.' He said he could see how others might perceive it as offensive in the way it was presented.

Now, he said, he is 'sick to my stomach' over the damage the post did.

'If I had to do it all over again, I probably would have used different verbiage,' Smith said.

Smith maintains he was alerted Tuesday of plans for an emergency board meeting to seek his resignation or force a membership vote to oust him. Although the board has 14 members, including him, three of his most loyal supporters were on vacation, Smith said. So when he did the math, he concluded he didn't have the votes to face the faction that is unhappy with his leadership.

Smith could have appealed or forced a membership vote, but he said he decided to step down effective July 31 to end the distraction he created, avoid harming the reform process, and leave on his own terms. Smith will return to detective duties at the department.

Smith says he has full faith in Stuckey, who is a close friend and someone he considers an ally.

A delicate time for transition
But the transition comes at a delicate time, as Guild members are deciding on a proposed four-year contract that Smith expects to be voted down, partly over provisions giving the department more leeway on transfer and promotion lists.

Smith told the Times that many members believe the compensation and benefits in the package don't justify handing management more power. They also are unhappy with language that appears to give more power to the civilian director of the police department's OPA.



During his time as SPOG president, Smith criticized the OPA for its 'heavy-handed disciplinary findings' and disrespect for collective-bargaining rights.

Still, Smith said his relationship with O'Toole produced tangible benefits, including getting officers back on the street after delays in reviewing shootings, more money to pay for new uniforms, family-friendly hours for some officers, and, most recently, a late-night order from O'Toole for officers to work in pairs after the Dallas shootings.

If the contract is rejected in voting that ends soon, it will complicate the city's position moving forward with reforms rooted in civilian oversight of the police department.

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