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Originally published March 3, 2011 at 9:32 PM | Page modified March 4, 2011 at 5:50 AM

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Police guild's outspoken president leads cops in talks

The man who heads Seattle's police union has a message for city leaders: Like it or not, he's the man they'll have to deal with for the next three years.

Seattle Times staff reporter

The man who heads Seattle's police union has a message for city leaders: Like it or not, he's the man they'll have to deal with for the next three years.

Sgt. Rich O'Neill, recently elected to his third term as president of the Seattle Police Officers' Guild, says recent calls by city officials to modify Seattle's police-accountability system will have to be hashed out at the bargaining table.

"I'm not going anywhere. I'm a deal maker and I want to cut a deal," said O'Neill, 52, who represents the Police Department's 1,250 officers and sergeants.

The guild and city are in the midst of contract talks, which come against a backdrop of a series of high-profile incidents involving police and members of the city's minority communities. In the most serious, former Officer Ian Birk fatally shot First Nations woodcarver John T. Williams in August, a shooting the department later found to be unjustified. Birk resigned Feb. 16.

Two other incidents — the kicking of a suspect in a convenience store and another kick delivered to a prone and handcuffed man outside a bar by an off-duty officer — are under criminal investigation.

The incidents have prompted a U.S. Department of Justice review into whether officers have engaged in a pattern of unnecessary force, particularly against minorities.

In response, Mayor Mike McGinn said the city needs to repair the damage caused by the shooting and the other controversial confrontations, and called on the union to "step up" and be less defensive over issues such as race and social-justice training. The council's Public Safety & Education Committee last week issued a set of recommendations it says are aimed at restoring citizens' confidence in the department, many of which are subject to collective bargaining.

But O'Neill says city leaders fail to recognize the union's long history of participating in community discussions and negotiating changes to officers' working conditions.

"The only time we'll say 'no, no, no' is when they try to impose something without bargaining," he said.

A lightning rod

A father of four grown children and a veteran of 30 years on the Seattle police force, O'Neill was first elected president of the union in 2006. He has become the public face — and voice — of the department's beat cops, detectives and front-line supervisors.

"Our department muzzles them," O'Neill said, referring to a policy created by former Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske and continued under Chief John Diaz that bars officers below the rank of lieutenant from speaking publicly about the department without permission from their commanders.

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"I get so many e-mails from officers who are so proud of my willingness to get out there and stand up for them."

His role as voice of the union has made O'Neill something of a lightning rod for criticism.

He took plenty of political heat for defending an article published in January in the union newspaper, The Guardian, in which Officer Steve Pomper called the city's 5-year-old Race and Social Justice Initiative an attack on American values and characterized its supporters as "the enemy."

McGinn criticized The Guardian and O'Neill's position that officers are simply exercising their free-speech rights.

"Their union newspaper contains within it inflammatory comments about the Seattle public, the Seattle leadership and Seattle values, which harm public confidence in the police force," the mayor said. "The words and actions from the union speak to the public as well, and those opinions also drive mistrust."

But O'Neill responds: "Do we really want that? A government that can tell us what to think? Isn't that Pomper's point?"

O'Neill, noting that President Obama has described the Republican opposition as "the enemy," said Pomper can hold any opinions he wants, so long as he checks them at the door when it's time to go to work. He pointed out that the 19-year veteran hasn't received a single citizen complaint during his career patrolling the city's diverse East Precinct.

Police "pretty darn good"

O'Neill said the union rarely gets credit for its role in the creation of the civilian-led Office of Professional Accountability in 1999, or more recent efforts to improve police accountability.

During the last round of contract negotiations — which dragged on for nearly two years before a contract was ratified in May 2008 — the union agreed to incorporate an expert panel's 29 recommendations to improve police accountability in exchange for a wage and benefits package that gave Seattle cops their largest pay increase ever. That contract expired in December.

"People don't see the horse-trading that goes on at the bargaining table," O'Neill said. "It gets a little frustrating when people think negotiating means just giving them what they want. That's not how it works."

Public criticism of officers often fails to take into account "that we're not perfect but we've got it pretty darn good in Seattle," he said, noting that in 2009, 85 percent of the city's cops did not receive a single complaint and use-of-force incidents are one-fifth below the national average.

When officers do use force — and it's captured on video — O'Neill said "there's no way force looks pretty." But he cautioned the public from passing judgment on officers' conduct based on a "20-second snippet."

"Video has exonerated a lot of officers. I ... think we need to educate people about what they're seeing," he said.

When it comes to discipline, O'Neill said it's his job to stick up for officers to make sure punishment is fair. Even when an officer's conduct warrants termination, O'Neill said it's his duty to make sure the officer's due-process rights aren't violated.

"I'll never apologize for standing up for officers," he said.

Agreement broken?

Last week, in his State of the City address, McGinn chastised the union for failing to understand "the nature and severity" of public distrust in the Police Department and called on the union "to step up and be part of the solution."

His comments — which veered off-script from his prepared statement — stung members of the Seattle force and angered O'Neill, who said he'd met with the mayor four days before the speech.

"When we met privately, he said it was best if we don't trash each other publicly if we're going to build relationships. We fast-forward to the State of the City, and he basically went against what he'd said," O'Neill said.

But McGinn said his comments to O'Neill echoed his address: "I was clear with him that we needed the police union to come to the table and be part of the solution. They can't be closed and defensive.

"Rich O'Neill's approach in public to these issues is not helping build public trust and confidence," McGinn said. "... I don't think the union has fully faced up to the facts. There is a serious lack of confidence in the police force right now and the union needs to be part of the solution."

While McGinn said he revised his speech up until the time he delivered it and may have added some last-minute comments, he was silent when pressed about whether he and O'Neill had agreed to not publicly bash each other.

O'Neill said he's proved his willingness to engage the community, and has met with various groups, including El Centro de la Raza and the city's African-American Community Advisory Council following high-profile police incidents.

"It certainly does no good for the mayor to have a lack of history and come out and perpetuate these stereotypes about the union," he said.

Sara Jean Green: 206-515-5654 or sgreen@seattletimes.com

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