Outspoken head of Seattle police union to step aside
Sgt. Rich O’Neill, president of the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild, will return to police duties on March 1 after serving eight years marked by conflict and controversy.
Seattle Times staff reporters
Sgt. Rich O’Neill , the Seattle police- guild president known for his contentious and colorful comments, says it’s time for change and has announced he will not seek office again.
O’Neill, 55, popular with troops but a sometimes polarizing figure, has served as president of the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild (SPOG) for the past eight years.
“I feel the organization is in much better shape now,” he said Wednesday. “It’s grown in all ways, we’ve delivered two very good contracts and I’ve accomplished everything I intended.”
Although O’Neill, who joined the Police Department in 1980, said he is old enough to retire, he would like to work another four to five years.
He said he’s not sure where he will be assigned but noted that as a sergeant he will be working in some supervisory position. He plans to start his new assignment March 1, while remaining on the guild board for 12 months in the position of past president.
O’Neill, who wrote of his decision not to seek a fourth term in the December issue of the union’s newspaper, The Guardian, has been one of the most controversial guild leaders in recent years.
A staunch advocate of the union’s collective-bargaining rights, his unpopular statements sometimes raised the hackles of city and Police Department leaders.
“I don’t regret any of my comments,” O’Neill said. “I am proud of standing up for the officers during their most critical times. What I regret, though, is that I was often the only person saying what needed to be said. People don’t give up any constitutional rights when they put on a badge.”
In a 2008 contract, O’Neill won hefty pay raises for the rank-and-file officers and sergeants the guild represents by accepting 29 proposals to bolster police oversight and internal discipline recommended by a citizen panel.
But the guild remained a dissonant voice, with O’Neill often defending officers accused of using excessive force. The Guardian served as a regular soapbox for officers to lash out at police and city leaders over issues such as the city’s “social justice culture.”
O’Neill lamented last year’s settlement agreement with the Department of Justice (DOJ), which required the city to adopt reforms to curb excessive force and biased policing. In his monthly Guardian column, he referred to the need to survive “DOJ Dark Days” and asserted the DOJ investigation that led to the agreement had proved to be false and “lacks credibility.”
Later, however, he struck a conciliatory tone, writing that it was time to put aside complaints and “move forward” with the changes.
During the most recent contract negotiations, the city and the union fought over a proposal that the city no longer pay the salary and benefits of the union president. The city was paying O’Neill $125,000 in salary and benefits while he served as full-time head of the union.
When a contract was reached earlier this year, both sides agreed to continue talks over the salary issue.
“The City and SPOG are still (in) negotiation over the president’s salary,” Robert Cruickshank, a spokesman for Mayor Mike McGinn wrote in an email Wednesday. “The City remains committed to obtaining 100% reimbursement for the SPOG President’s salary.”
The guild, which represents more than 1,220 officers and sergeants, will hold elections next month, choosing a new president and other officeholders to be sworn in the following month.
O’Neill, who was subject to calls at all hours over crisis situations, said he will not miss having his phone ring at 3 a.m.
This story includes material from Seattle Times archives.
Christine Clarridge: 206-464-8983 or firstname.lastname@example.org Steve Miletich: 206-464-3302 or email@example.com. On Twitter @steve Miletich