Sgt. Rich O'Neill, who most recently served as the guild's vice president and played a key role in contentious negotiations that led to a new labor contract with the city, will handle the union's most critical duties, including future contract negotiations.
Seattle police Sgt. Rich O’Neill, who emerged as a powerful and polarizing union leader during more than 38 years in the department, plans to retire as a police officer Thursday.
But O’Neill, 60, will return to the Seattle Police Officers Guild (SPOG) as a civilian Friday, to fill the newly created position of director of labor and media relations, the union said in a statement Wednesday.
O’Neill, who most recently served as the guild’s vice president and played a key role in contentious negotiations that led to a new labor contract with the city, will handle the union’s most critical duties: overseeing news media inquiries, grievances filed with the department, disciplinary appeals and future contract negotiations.
His continuing presence and consolidation of power comes at a time the federal judge overseeing court-ordered reforms to address excessive force by officers has raised pointed questions about the new contract, asking whether elements of the agreement violate a 2012 consent decree between the city of Seattle and the U.S. Department of Justice.
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O’Neill’s appointment by the union’s board is part of a “major restructuring,” Guild President Kevin Stuckey said in the statement.
“Sgt. O’Neill has a wealth of knowledge on police labor issues and has negotiated the last three SPOG contracts,” Stuckey said. “I am grateful that he was willing to continue to work for SPOG after his retirement from the department.”
Stuckey didn’t say what his role will be and didn’t respond to requests for comment. Under the new contract, Seattle taxpayers will pay 78 percent of the guild president’s salary, which topped $100,000 in 2017 in the most recently-available figures.
O’Neill said in the statement that he’d work to improve officers’ work conditions and benefits. He didn’t respond to requests for comment.
In negotiating contracts, O’Neill garnered a reputation as someone who was willing to accept reforms in exchange for more money for his members. In 2008 and in the recently completed contract, he made Seattle officers and sergeants in the 1,300-plus member union the highest paid in the state while accepting reforms.
He then became vice president, replacing Stuckey, who took over as president when the guild ousted then-president Ron Smith amid a power shake-up. O’Neill then took over the labor negotiations.
During O’Neill’s tenure as guild president, he garnered a reputation as a staunch defender of collective-bargaining rights who worked tirelessly for his members.
But he alienated people in city government and the community with comments that excessive-force complaints had been overblown, and SPOG’s newspaper, The Guardian, published articles bitterly attacking the Justice Department.
O’Neill also fought unsuccessfully to keep secret the names of disciplined officers.
After the federal reforms were agreed upon, O’Neill struck a more conciliatory tone, saying it was time to put aside complaints and “move forward” with the changes.
But U.S. District Judge James Robart, who is overseeing the consent decree, expressed deep concerns about the contract at a Nov. 5 court hearing, shortly before the City Council approved the deal Nov. 13. He said he will look closely at whether it follows the “spirit” and “purpose” of reforms.
Stuckey also announced Wednesday the results of the recent SPOG elections, saying Officer Mike Solan, a 20-year Seattle police veteran, was elected vice president to replace O’Neill.
Solan helped lead an effort to defeat Initiative 940 on November’s ballot, a police-accountability measure overwhelmingly approved by voters. It removed a barrier to prosecuting police officers for misuse of deadly force and required more training.