Seattle Union Leader Wants Officers Treated Fairly

Detective Ron Smith wants to ensure the union's members are treated fairly by the department.

Seattle police Detective Ron Smith is still rankled by the treatment he says he received from department brass after he shot and wounded a Hells Angel during a wild, off-duty bar brawl in South Dakota.

Smith was at the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in August 2008 with fellow members of the Iron Pigs, a motorcycle club made up of law-enforcement officers and firefighters, when members of the Angels jumped him. Fearing for his life, Smith shot one attacker and was arrested and charged with aggravated assault.

Although the charges were eventually dropped, Smith says the lengthy internal investigation by Seattle police still stings. As Smith tells it, he was kept in the dark by his bosses, felt ostracized and didn't learn he was cleared by the department until he received an email four months later.

Now, as he prepares to take over as the president of the Seattle Police Officers' Guild (SPOG), Smith's anger over the episode is apparent. In fact, he says one of the reasons he wants to take over the leadership of the union that represents 1,220 officers and sergeants is to ensure its members are treated fairly by the department.

"I know what it's like to be on the 'island of misfit toys,' " said Smith. "I know what it's like to be mistreated by this department. I know what it's like to feel like it's hopeless."

Smith, a 48-year-old father of three, was the only person who ran for president of SPOG. On Feb. 26, he will take over from outgoing President Sgt. Rich O'Neill, who during his eight years heading the union was known for sometimes contentious and colorful comments, and for staunchly advocating SPOG's collective-bargaining rights.

"It's time we have a new guild president. It's time for a fresh start," O'Neill said, adding he would have run again "if I thought this place was getting turned over to a person whose heart wasn't in it."

Precedent-setting time

Smith, currently SPOG's secretary-treasurer, will take over at an unprecedented time for the Seattle Police Department.

The department is operating under federal oversight after a hard-fought settlement between the city and the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), which found Seattle police routinely used excessive force and uncovered evidence of biased policing.

The settlement has led to new policies on use of force, how and when officers stop and frisk people, and how incidents are reported.

In addition, the city is about to embark on a search for a permanent police chief after the resignation last year of John Diaz. Until then, longtime Seattle police Officer Harry Bailey has been brought out of retirement to serve as interim chief.

In the past, O'Neill has sharply criticized the DOJ findings and federal oversight. However, O'Neill recently struck a conciliatory tone, writing that it was time to "move forward" with the changes resulting from federal oversight.

U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan said she has met regularly with O'Neill and other guild members about concerns over the DOJ findings, something she expects will continue with Smith.

"I think he (Smith) will be a strong advocate for the police officers, but he will also understand the importance of reform and make sure it's done in the right way for the police officers and for the community," Durkan said.

Growing up in Enumclaw, Smith said, his father's service in the Air Force Reserves inspired him to go into law enforcement. After a stint in community college and six years in the Army, Smith joined the Police Department in 1993.

Three years after he was hired, Smith said, he started getting involved in police-union issues after he felt a colleague was made a target after inaccurate information was reported in the media.

On Jan. 15, 1996, Officer William Edwards fatally shot a man in the Central District. Edwards testified to an inquest jury that the weapon accidentally discharged as he held Edward Anderson, 28, at gunpoint. Jurors found the shooting to be unintentional.

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