The chief of Seattle’s largest police union has told members to “go [work] someplace else” if they are not willing to police the city’s racially diverse population without prejudice, marking a notable call for change from among the city’s rank-and-file officers who have recently been accused of racial bias.
Ron Smith, president of the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild, which represents 1,250 officers and says it is the largest police union in the US north-west, directed his views to officers in an interview with Seattle newspaper the Stranger: “You applied here and you have to treat people all the same. You have to serve the community.”
Smith has recently defended Seattle officers accused of racially biased policing and has been critical of the city’s efforts to reform disciplinary proceedings for officers accused of misconduct.
Last week, however, the union called on members through Facebook to be careful on social media after officers were caught posting racially inflammatory comments online, warning: “Times have changed and we must also change to adapt to societal expectations.”
Asked by the Stranger to elaborate on those comments, Smith said: “If you don’t like the politics here, then leave and go to a place that serves your worldview.” He said this was a message that new recruits were now reminded of when they enrolled with the union.
“There are more than enough places across this country that are hiring law enforcement that have a different political landscape than here. And I don’t know why [disgruntled officers] don’t just go there,” he added.
The comments mark a direct contrast with the way some of the country’s other large police unions have responded to criticism of allegedly racially biased policing in the wake of nationwide protests against police over events in Ferguson, Missouri, and New York last year.
Patrick Lynch, the chief of New York’s largest police union, the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, attempted to link the fatal shooting of two NYPD officers to such protests, describing “those that incited violence on the street in the guise of protest, that tried to tear down what New York City police officers did every day. We tried to warn it must not go on; it shouldn’t be tolerated.”
The Seattle police department was the subject of a 2011 US justice department investigation which found it had “engaged in a pattern of excessive force that violates the constitution and federal law” and which also “raised serious concerns” that the force had been engaged in “discriminatory policing”.
Seattle police settled with the DOJ and signed a memorandum of understanding which pledged to improve training and community outreach.
But a number of recent incidents have raised questions about the commitment to this pledge. In January, Jesse Hagopian, a black schoolteacher and respected local activist, was pepper-sprayed as he walked home peacefully from a Black Lives Matter protest on Martin Luther King Day.
Last July, an elderly African American man, William Wingate, was arrested for using a golf club as a walking stick. His lawyers described his only crime as “walking in Seattle while black”.
Both victims have filed lawsuits against the police.