The comments come at a pivotal moment, when the federal judge presiding over Seattle's reform effort is examining whether parts of the guild's new contract with the city conflict with the terms of a 2012 agreement with the Justice Department.
Seattle’s agreement to federally mandated police reforms has “damaged” the willingness of officers to seek out crime, a senior police guild official said in a radio interview last week, reflecting lingering resentment among union members more than six years after the pact was enacted.
The reforms, brought about by federal allegations of excessive use of force and biased policing, also led to a “real hit” in recruiting and retaining officers, Rich O’Neill, the director of labor and media relations for the Seattle Police Officers Guild (SPOG), said in an NPR story that aired Friday. The segment examined a similar agreement by Chicago to accept federal oversight of its police department arising from allegations similar to those directed toward Seattle.
Seattle has been held up as a beacon of success among more than a dozen police departments nationwide operating under consent decrees with the U.S. Justice Department. But O’Neill’s reflections come at a pivotal moment, when the federal judge presiding over Seattle’s reform effort is examining whether parts of the guild’s new contract with the city conflict with the terms of the 2012 agreement.
Although U.S. District Judge James Robart found the police department to be in full compliance with the pact in January 2018, he is considering whether it may be in violation under a two-year sustainment period. The judge has questioned an arbitrator’s decision overturning the firing of an officer who punched a handcuffed woman who kicked him.
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In the NPR interview, O’Neill said the Seattle agreement was “very frustrating from the beginning.”
“The incentive to get out and be a proactive officer I think has been damaged, ” he said. “And something the city cannot deny anymore is that we have had a real hit in recruiting — retaining officers.”
The reference to proactive policing related to Seattle officers’ initial experience with a barrage of new policies, in the context of “Chicago just getting started,” O’Neill, a former guild president who recently retired as a sergeant, said in a phone interview with The Seattle Times on Monday.
“At the very start, officers were very frustrated,” O’Neill said. “They didn’t know what was going on.”
At the time, internal statistics showed so-called on views, in which officers initiate police work, were down, O’Neill said. Regarding his comment about proactive policing in the NPR interview, he said it was his assumption that it is still in decline, although he had not seen the numbers in a long time. He blamed continuing concerns not just on federal oversight but also a heavyhanded internal disciplinary system.
On views since 2014 have increased by 38 percent, Police Chief Carmen Best said in an emailed statement on Monday.
“We have been in full and effective compliance with the consent decree since January 2018, and have been moving forward with sustainment ever since,” she said.
O’Neill said the difficulties in recruitment and retention are caused by more than the reforms. Other factors include the four-year delay in reaching a labor contract, frozen wages and City Councilmember Kshama Sawant’s “calling our people murderers,” after the fatal shooting of a 46-year-old man by two officers in 2016.
Seattle, like many cities around the country, has seen a recent drop in new recruits and a surge of officers retiring or leaving to join other departments offering hiring bonuses. Officials have ascribed the trend to to historically low unemployment, negative views of police work, housing and commute costs, and the contentious labor negotiations.
Exit interviews for officers show that the reforms are not a driver in their decisions to leave, Mike Fields, the police department’s human resources director, said in a recent City Council discussion.
Mark Prentice, spokesman for Mayor Jenny Durkan, did not directly respond to O’Neill’s comments on NPR, but noted that the work of SPOG members made possible the gains in reforms.
Durkan, in a statement, echoed his comments, saying that under the consent decree she signed as then-U.S. attorney for Western Washington, the police department “continues to make significant progress on reforms across all measures while making our city safer.”
“We’ve seen the progress firsthand of culture change and how officers respond to crisis, which has been reaffirmed by the Department of Justice and the (court-appointed) Monitor,” she said. “None of these gains would have been possible without the dedicated work of our police officers.”
On Monday, the City Council passed legislation authorizing hiring bonuses of up to $15,000 to attract trained officers from other police departments. It also approved up to $7,500 in bonuses for new recruits.
Seattle Times Staff Reporter Daniel Beekman contributed to this story.