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Originally published June 19, 2013 at 9:08 PM | Page modified June 20, 2013 at 10:14 AM

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Seattle police-union head urges members to accept reforms

After criticizing federally mandated reforms to curb excessive force, the president of the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild is telling members the time has come to put aside complaints and “move forward.”

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Striking a conciliatory tone, the head of the Seattle police union is urging members to accept federally mandated police reforms, saying it is time to put aside complaints and “move forward” with the changes.

“Our job is to adapt to the change in a healthy way so we can remain safe and not turn into an old grump who only wants to talk about ‘the good old days,’ ” Sgt. Rich O’Neill, president of the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild (SPOG), wrote in the current issue of the union’s newspaper, The Guardian.

Just in April, O’Neill lamented the city’s settlement agreement with the Department of Justice, referring in his monthly column to the need to survive “DOJ Dark Days.” At that time, he asserted the Justice Department investigation that led to the settlement had proved to be false and “lacks credibility.”

His latest remarks, contained in his June column, come nearly a year after the city agreed to landmark reforms sought by the Justice Department to curtail excessive force and biased policing.

O’Neill, who represents more than 1,220 officers and sergeants, could not be reached for comment.

But a clue to the timing of his column was offered Wednesday by Merrick Bobb, the independent federal monitor appointed to ensure the changes are carried out, who said he met last month with O’Neill and Interim Police Chief Jim Pugel to discuss his concerns about the union’s stance.

In his column, O’Neill linked his comments to the guild’s collective-bargaining agreement reached in April, saying the contract with the city provides a “clear path forward” in adopting the reforms, consistent with the union’s past record of negotiating such changes.

“So, with this new agreement a new day is upon us,” O’Neill wrote of the four-year contract, which is still subject to City Council approval. “It is time for SPOG and all of our members to move forward in implementing the changes called for in the DOJ settlement agreement.”

Noting that the settlement agreement is “not going away and is not going to be thrown in the shredder,” O’Neill wrote that the monitoring team headed by Bobb “is not leaving until the reforms have been achieved.”

“We can argue all day over the original DOJ investigation and whether or not it could ever have held up under scrutiny in court,” O’Neill added. “That train has left the station! The elected officials chose not to go that route.”

His comments appeared as city officials are wrestling with the controversial issue of whether the city should keep paying O’Neill’s salary and benefits — which totaled $125,000 as of April — while he serves full time as the union leader. The matter is expected to be revisited as part of a “reopen” provision of the collective-bargaining agreement.

In his column, O’Neill revealed that he has met with Bobb three times and members of his team on several more occasions.

“I have found them to be professional and pleasant to talk with,” O’Neill wrote, emphasizing they are independent from the Justice Department.

O’Neill said it also was time to “let go” of the issue of the monitor’s original billing statement, which led to news reports raising questions about his expenses.

Although Bobb, who heads a Los Angeles police-accountability nonprofit, had rented an apartment in Seattle so he and his team could avoid costly hotel bills, the city refused to pay for a small amount of alcohol consumed at meals and other billings.

The guild’s vice president, Sgt. Ty Elster, seized on the reports in a blistering Guardian article in April, accusing Bobb of “plowing ahead while racking up expenses to include booze and Egyptian cotton pillow cases for his luxury Seattle apartment.”

Bobb, who was appointed by a federal judge, said Wednesday that he viewed the Elster article as evidence the union was “dug in” regarding the settlement agreement.

The article, he said, triggered last month’s meeting with O’Neill in Pugel’s office, during which O’Neill displayed a different attitude and approached “everything much more pragmatically than ideologically.”

O’Neill, in his June column, conceded the expense stories were “not completely accurate” and that the city had been reimbursed.

“Again, this monitoring team is not going anywhere and we need to work with them, so their work can be completed as quickly as possible,” he wrote. “Deciding to work together does not mean we agree on all issues, it just means we accept reality and need to move on!”

At the same time, O’Neill appeared to grudgingly accept some aspects of the settlement agreement, such as “more training than ever before” and possible changes in how use of force is reported and documented.

“I have said many times that the department can send you to ‘basket-weaving school’ and it is not a ‘guild issue,’ ” he wrote.

“We are paid to be there and we are subject to discipline for not attending. So why not just go and get it over with?”

O’Neill wrote that if use of force requires more paperwork and time off the street, “why raise your blood pressure by complaining about it?”

“If you worked for McDonald’s,” he continued, “ and the manager told you to put only two pickles on each cheeseburger, but you personally thought they tasted better with four pickles, how long do you think it would be before the manager reprimanded you for excessive use of pickles?”

O’Neill said his point was that dealing with changing policies and procedures has always been part of the job.

“Some of them make sense and some do not, but we are not the policymakers,” he wrote.

Steve Miletich: 206-464-3302 or smiletich@seattletimes.com On Twitter @stevemiletich

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