Ron Smith has been getting a lot of grief lately. Sitting in the SODO offices of the Seattle Police Officers Guild, dressed in jeans and a short-sleeve shirt revealing arms covered with tattoos, the bald and bearded union president is the first to admit it.
He says his members expressed “frustration” a couple of weeks back when, in an interview with The Stranger’s Ansel Herz, he elaborated upon a SPOG Facebook post that advised members to wise up and get with the times when it came to social media. “Think before you hit send,” read the post, which came in the midst of a growing controversy about perceived racist and otherwise disrespectful Facebook comments by officers. And then he went and told Herz that if officers didn’t like the Seattle Police Department’s new social media rules prohibiting such comments, they always had the option of going elsewhere.
Smith insists it wasn’t so much his pointed comments that caused blowback, but the fact that he “would even submit to an article with The Stranger,” a paper that he says many officers view as not giving them “a fair shake.” Some in his position would have held off on media interviews for a while. Yet here he is talking to Seattle Weekly, carving out more than an hour for an expansive conversation about police reform and the direction he is trying to take the union.
His openness is deliberate. He says that when he stepped into office a year ago, taking over from longtime president Rich O’Neill, he “came in with an open slate” and a determination to “talk to any media” as long as he wasn’t misquoted.
That was just part of a new tone that he says he was trying to set at the union—one that moved away from the contentious posture it was known for and strived to be “collaborative.” As he saw it, he explains, the police department was in a difficult spot. It was working with the federal government to enact the sweeping change mandated by a consent decree with the Department of Justice, which had charged SPD with routinely using excessive force. Yet at the same time, Smith says, he saw an “opportunity.”
A new chief, Kathleen O’Toole, was coming in. He had high hopes. After she had been nominated by the mayor, Smith says he called his counterpart in Boston, where O’Toole had served as commissioner, and asked about her. The Boston police-union president said “she was the best commissioner he had ever worked under,” Smith recounts.
As Smith tells it, no police chief in Seattle had worked collaboratively with his union since, ironically, Norm Stamper—regarded as probably the most liberal chief Seattle has ever had, one who went on to support drug legalization and denounce police militarization. Stamper, who served as chief during the ’90s, had SPOG’s then-president sit in on command-staff meetings—a practice that ended when he left, according to Smith.
O’Toole hasn’t reopened that invitation, but Smith says she has listened to the guild in other settings. When the union complained that officers involved in shootings spent months waiting for a hearing before the Firearms Review Board, O’Toole whittled the process down to a few weeks.
It should be noted that just last year, after Ed Murray became mayor, some believed Smith’s union and the Seattle Police Management Association had too much influence. In fact, there was talk of a union “coup.”
The mayor had then appointed a former assistant chief named Harry Bailey, known to be friendly to the unions, as interim head of SPD. Union leaders, including O’Neill, then in his final days as SPOG president, were frequently seen chatting with command staff. Bailey promoted people who were close to the unions. And the interim chief famously reversed several disciplinary decisions regarding officers, which got both him and the mayor in hot water when the news leaked.
Around the time that Smith was taking charge of SPOG, there was speculation that he’d had a hand in temporarily sidelining longtime SPD public-affairs director Sean Whitcomb, who had become embroiled in a convoluted investigation by the Office of Professional Accountability. It started with a Facebook comment.
Whitcomb complained to OPA about a post Smith had made questioning the public-affairs office’s decision to give away Doritos at Hempfest the preceding year—a goodwill gesture in the aftermath of voters’ passage of marijuana legalization Initiative 502. Pot critics inside the department hated the idea, as did Smith, apparently. He wrote that Whitcomb and public-affairs staffer Jonah Spangenthal-Lee, a former Stranger writer, would “meet their destiny.”
Whitcomb saw the comment as a threat and told OPA as much. Smith denied the charge, and OPA found no wrongdoing. Strangely, though, OPA then began investigating Whitcomb due to questions raised during its investigation about whether the public-affairs director put undue pressure on employees to participate in the Doritos stunt. Was this retaliation from Smith?
Now, as then, Smith denies it. Regardless, the union leader recounts that as soon as Whitcomb was cleared of wrongdoing and returned to his post, Smith called him and asked if they could meet. “We took a walk on Fifth Avenue, shook hands, and put it into whatever it was,” Smith says.
Whitcomb confirms Smith’s account, adding: “Our relationship is as good as it could possibly be.”
As for the unions having an outsized influence on the department, that seemed to change when O’Toole took over, as evidenced earlier this week when The Seattle Times reported that the chief will be replacing all four of her assistant chiefs—two of them, over fierce objections from SPMA, with department outsiders. Meanwhile, Smith went on to form even more remarkable relationships. “I never in my life would have imagined that I would have the relationship I have with Lisa Daugaard,” he says. A leading public defender, Daugaard has often criticized police practices, including those she has argued are biased against minorities.
Daugaard is also co-chair of the Community Police Commission, a group tasked by the consent decree with providing community input to proposed reforms. SPOG has a representative on the commission, and by working together the union and their longtime critics have found common ground. “None of us expected this to be possible,” Daugaard marvels.
One of the things that paved the way for this working relationship was what Smith calls his “profound appreciation” for defense attorneys following his own run-in with the law. In 2008, at a motorcycle bar in Sturgis, S.D., Smith shot and wounded a Hells Angel whom he claimed had attacked him. Smith was indicted for assault, among other charges. “You know what they say,” he says. “You can indict a ham sandwich.’ ”
That may be true, but it’s uncommon to hear from a police officer, as is the respect Smith pays to those who normally work on the opposite side of the criminal-justice system. He says his defense attorney at the time ably showed that Smith had been attacked—a version of events bolstered by a video—and the charges were dropped.
For some time after the incident, Smith harbored bitterness toward the SPD, whom he felt had maligned him in the days after the shooting, in part by saying that the gun he’d used in the scuffle was department-issued when in fact it was not. He sued the department, but the case was dismissed. “I made a choice after that happened not to become a bad employee,” he says.
Now he seems to be making a choice to give the reform process a try. When representatives from a group of more than 100 officers told him last year that they intended to file a suit against the SPD over a revamp of the department’s use-of-force policy, Smith tried to get them to air their complaints instead with the CPC.
The officers filed their suit anyway. (It was subsequently dismissed.) Even so, Smith says he went on to suggest that the CPC hold listening sessions with officers about the use-of-force policy. It did, and in November issued a report calling for a variety of changes.
“It’s just poorly written,” Smith says of the policy. The old policy, he points out, was 15 pages. This one is 80. And he holds that the details are confusing. For example, he says, “You’re not allowed to do stuff to juveniles or somebody who’s pregnant. But how do you know when somebody’s pregnant? All pregnant people don’t look the same.” What’s more, he asks: “How do you know who a juvenile is? Some juveniles look like adults, and there are times when juveniles can be just as violent.”
It’s this street-level “grasp of reality” that he says is lacking in some of the people who are now “sitting in judgment” of those in the field, such as those on the court-ordered monitoring team overseeing reforms.
On SPOG’s Facebook page last month, right after he posted his message to officers concerning social-media practices, Smith linked to news reports on civil-rights leaders in other states who had submitted themselves to a training exercise that simulates the environment officers face on the street. The leaders had to decide whether to use force or not, and their own reactions surprised them. A Houston activist named Quanell X found himself tasing a suspect that he thought had a knife. But when questioned, he admitted that he’d never actually seen the knife—which is just the kind of scenario that has generated fierce criticism for officers around the country.
“It would be nice if the Seattle Monitoring Team would courageously go through the same scenarios,” Smith wrote on Facebook. Later, in his office, when asked who on the team he might ask to do so, he suggests deputy monitor Peter Ehrlichman.
Seattle Weekly called and e-mailed Ehrlichman, who works for the local firm Dorsey & Whitney, to see if he was game, but was not able to reach him by press time. The offer is still on, though. Smith says he’ll be happy to set it up. And who knows? It’s the kind of provocative move that just might help him with some of those disgruntled members.