New Seattle union leader wants police treated fairly
"I know what it's like to be mistreated by this department. I know what it's like to feel like it's hopeless"
By Jennifer Sullivan
The Seattle Times
SEATTLE — 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."
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.
Smith said he was one of the first to respond to the scene and was frustrated by witnesses who said in the media that the shooting did not appear an accident.
"I had to sit back and watch the political theater play out. There were different accounts by people that were not true," Smith said.
Then came his encounter with the Hells Angels.
Smith says he and fellow members of the Iron Pigs were about to leave the Loud American Roadhouse in Sturgis on Aug. 9, 2008, when they were jumped by members of the Angels. Smith shot Joseph McGuire, a known Hells Angels member from Imperial Beach, Calif.
"When I realized I wasn't going to get out of a chokehold, and when I heard people in the background screaming about knives, I shot him at close range," Smith recalled recently.
Smith was charged in South Dakota with felony aggravated assault and perjury. Also, Smith and fellow Seattle police Sgt. Dennis McCoy, also involved in the barroom brawl, were charged with carrying a concealed weapon without a permit.
All charges were dropped after authorities in South Dakota determined Smith was the target of a premeditated attack.
McGuire, the wounded Hells Angel, pleaded no contest to simple assault and received a one-year suspended sentence.
Smith later filed a civil suit against the Seattle Police Department and the city, alleging the department provided false information that led to his indictment in South Dakota on a perjury charge, which was dropped.
A King County Superior Court judge dismissed the suit after the city asserted the police statements were protected under a state law protecting communications with government.
Bailey, the interim police chief, declined to comment on how Smith was treated by the department in 2008.
However, he said he hopes Smith will continue the work O'Neill has done developing relationships in the community.
"I will want to see what Ron will do," Bailey said.
Smith is president of the Council of Metropolitan Police and Sheriffs (COMPAS), a group that represents officers and management at the Seattle Police Department and the King County Sheriff's Office at the state level.
He is also a member of the 12-member police-chief search committee appointed by Murray. Committee members will work with a search firm to review all applicants and present finalists for Murray to consider.
Smith said his main goal for his three-year term is to help the city get out from under federal oversight by getting officers on board with changes.
"They're here," he said of the new policies and federal oversight. "We have a settlement agreement that was passed down by the federal judge who has given the monitor his instructions. We are a professional department; we can work very quickly to meet the benchmarks the DOJ has made."
Smith also wants to improve the guild's relationship with distrustful members of the community by frequently meeting with them.
"Hopefully, we can earn the confidence back of this community. I think we will really be getting ready to open the next chapter and have a Police Department where people come to see things done."
Copyright 2014 The Seattle Times