McGinn's address stirs controversy over police accountability
It is typically a feel-good speech about past accomplishments and future initiatives, but Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn's "State of the City"...
Seattle Times staff reporter
It is typically a feel-good speech about past accomplishments and future initiatives, but Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn's "State of the City" address Tuesday instead stirred up controversy about police accountability and whether the police force should reflect the city's commitment to racial and social justice.
McGinn's 50-minute remarks to a packed City Council-chamber audience covered a range of initiatives, from job creation to education to rebuilding the city's infrastructure. But his sharpest comments were aimed at what he characterized as a lack of trust between the police and the public following several highly publicized incidents involving the use of force against minorities and the fatal shooting in August of First Nations carver John T. Williams by Officer Ian Birk.
McGinn said the problem can't be solved "just by firing officers after they make a big mistake on camera." Instead, he suggested that the impending retirement of 300 police officers could allow the city to recruit new officers who share "our commitment to racial and social justice."
Noting that more than 80 percent of the force lives outside the city, the mayor said retirements could allow for the recruitment of new officers who "understand us and our city."
McGinn questioned whether the Seattle Police Officers' Guild, the police union, understands "the nature and severity of this problem" and needs to "step up and be part of the solution."
McGinn's comments provoked a sharp rebuke from guild President Sgt. Rich O'Neill who, when contacted after the speech, questioned whether the mayor could require officers to think the same way he does.
"Nobody has a right to control someone else's mind. That's totally inappropriate," he said.
O'Neill said the guild has been a partner "since Day 1" in the creation of the Police Department's civilian oversight office, which investigates complaints, and has always been willing to discuss problems and solutions.
O'Neill said that while 300 officers are eligible for retirement, there is no mandatory retirement age, and "we're not going to be forced" to retire.
McGinn's remarks on police trust and accountability also disappointed Councilmember Tim Burgess, who said the mayor didn't propose any plan for addressing the erosion of trust.
"Has he invited the police union to sit down for talks? Frankly, I was hoping for more specifics," Burgess said.
After his first State of the City address in 2010, McGinn was criticized for casualness and an apparent lack of preparation, particularly in contrast to the highly orchestrated annual speeches of former Mayor Greg Nickels.
Tuesday, McGinn spoke from a script that gave a nod to some presidential State of the Union speeches, namely with shoutouts to citizen activists, innovative business leaders and four police officers in the audience whom he praised for their work in the community.
The mayor also followed themes raised by President Obama in his recent State of the Union address, saying that Seattle could "win the future" by leading in innovation, education and infrastructure including high-capacity transit and broadband service.
McGinn's remarks often struck a populist tone. He said city initiatives aimed at helping businesses create more jobs must "widen the circle of prosperity to include all of Seattle."
And he said that his proposed $231 million Families and Education Levy would make "the deepest investments in the schools and neighborhoods that need the most help." If the City Council approves, the measure will appear on the November ballot.
While the mayor opened his address by calling attention to initiatives on which he and council members are working in partnership, he also noted their "vigorous" disagreements over some issues, including the planned tunnel to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct. McGinn called the project "too expensive and too risky" and called for a public vote.
Councilmember Nick Licata, one of the eight City Council members who support a tunnel, said that the mayor failed to propose a solution to the impasse over the tunnel and that McGinn should be lobbying Olympia to fund the mayor's preferred surface alternative.
"If he was serious about opposing the tunnel, he'd offer a strong alternative. He's not," Licata said.
Lynn Thompson: 206-464-8305 or firstname.lastname@example.org