SPEECHLESS IN SEATTLE
(An abridged version of this article appeared in the Seattle Police Officers Guild newspaper the Guardian)
Seattle Police Department Policy and Procedure Manual, Standards & Duties, Sec. I,C.: “It’s not the Department’s intent to interfere with or constrain the freedoms, privacy, and liberties of employees.”
In the spirit of the government transparency political leaders such as President Barack Obama and Mayor Mike McGinn espouse, I have a story to tell my SPD brothers and sisters, of all ranks, concerning a Seattle police officer’s constitutional free speech rights. I don’t know about you, but when I swore my oath to uphold the laws of the State of Washington and the City of Seattle, which includes the U.S. Constitution, I don’t remember saying, “…except for police officers.”
The Department allowed its Internal Investigations Section/Office of Professional Accountability (OPA/IIS) 180-day investigation into my speaking off-duty to the media to expire. And after an additional 38 days beyond that contractual limit, and having ignored IIS investigators’ recommendation of “Exonerated,” OPA issued a mushy finding of, “Supervisory Intervention.”
What I’d done was supposedly so flagrant I was called in to work from home, verbally ordered not to give any more media interviews, and then the Department initiated a 7-month internal investigation into my “violations.” All so OPA could suggest training and counseling? Or could it be something else?
Could it be the City and Department contrived the entire thing just to shut me up because they felt I was embarrassing them? Read on and you be the judge.
To refresh you, in my article, “Just Shut Up and be a Good Little Socialist” (Guardian, Dec. 2010), I expressed opposition to the City’s Race and Social Justice Initiative (RSJI) generally, and specifically its Driving While License Suspended 3rd Degree (DWLS3) enforcement policy.
The City is still prosecuting the crime of DWLS3, according to City Attorney Pete Holmes’ office, by determining which cases “merited punishment” according to a driver’s race, ethnicity, and/or socio-economic status, in pursuit of social justice.
I didn’t interpret the policy this way, they did. Check out the links below for yourselves.
“The Law disproportionately targets poor people-” and “…city attorneys would decide which cases merited punishment.” Asst. City Attorney Darby Ducomb to Publicola.net
“DWLS3 change in pursuit of social justice.” Video interview with City Attorney Peter Holmes- Publicola.net (Video link below)
The Department actually launched an OPA/IIS investigation into my speaking publicly about an article it conceded I had a right to write (“I’m not the thought police,” said Chief Diaz [when asked about Pomper’s article]-Seattle Weekly, Jan 28, 2011). The Department acknowledges an officer’s free speech right to write and publish an article, but interferes with that very same officer’s very same free speech right to speak about that very same article?
On January 24th, 2011 I was a guest on the Dave Bose Show on KTTH 770 AM. This was the last of several interviews I’d done at my wife’s urging to defend myself against the nasty public attacks members of the media, political activists, City Council members, the City Attorney’s Office, the OPA Director, and the Mayor himself (the Chief of Police would soon join the chorus), leveled against me, all because of an article I dared to write espousing an honest political disagreement.
Our city and department leaders got to have their say, ordered me to shut up when I tried to defend myself, and then once they forced me to be quiet they continued to disparage me in the media. Really?
A media punching bag:
Mayor: No “Room in This City” for Cops Opposing Race and Justice Programs. – Mayor McGinn (the Stranger-Slog Jan. 2011).
[The director of IIS/OPA] “, who runs the SPD’s internal misconduct oversight program, says the articles don’t represent “a widespread culture” but rather “reflect the values of the authors and very few others.”- Kathryn Olson (the Stranger-Slog Jan. 2011).
“It’s a stupid thing to do . . .” and “It reflects badly . . . it’s another way it degrades trust in our department.” Seattle Police Chief John Diaz, the (Seattle Weekly Jan 2011).
“Police officer rails against city’s anti-bias initiatives. Lynn Thompson, (the Seattle Times Jan. 2011).
“Seattle police officer, it’s time to turn in the badge-” Jerry Large (the Seattle Times Jan. 2011).
“Making a tough job tougher-” Sally Clark’s Blog- Seattle City Council
[Pomper’s] comments are “not consistent with the values of the police department or the rules of behavior the department sets for our officers-” Tim Burgess Seattle City Council.
“He (Pomper) doesn’t understand that the playing field is not equal yet.” – Bruce Harrell, Seattle City Council
“…if Seattle Police Officer Steve Pomper would just stop polishing his billy club for a moment…”- Ken Schram Komo TV (Awarded a Schrammie).
Consider carefully the Department’s actions: Within one minute of the end of the Bose interview, I was called at my home, on a vacation day, and ordered to the precinct. In a five-minute meeting I was ordered not to give any further media interviews and handed copies of the SPD Manual policies I’d allegedly violated. I was told I could review them myself or with a Guild rep to find my specific violations. I guess they couldn’t find the violations either.
Despite the fact I’d immediately complied with the direct order (as advised by our Guild), the Department launched an official investigation. Incidentally, I’d like to publicly thank Guild President Rich O’Neill and Guild Attorney Hillary McClure for their support during the early stages of this ordeal.
After studying the policy language very carefully, it was obvious I’d violated no policies. In compliance with the manual, I’d given my own opinions, while off duty, in this case from my home. I documented these facts in writing at my IIS interview. The subsequent lack of a finding within the 180+38-day OPA/IIS investigation serves as further evidence of the frivolous nature of the charges brought against me specifically to keep me from speaking to defend myself and support my political position—while off duty.
The Department alleged I’d violated the Media Relations policy because I was of insufficient rank to speak to the media, and the Standards & Duties policy because I’d spoken in a manner representing the SPD, or which could be construed as representing the SPD. How ludicrous is that? How could I be speaking on behalf of the Department when I was defending myself against the disparaging public comments City and Department officials were making about me and an article I wrote?
Why, because I’m a public office holder? Well, so are the Mayor, Chief, City Attorney, City Council, and OPA Director. For that matter, we have an SPD officer who is a state representative, now running for Snohomish County Executive (I hope he wins). Wouldn’t it be a bit tough to do that job if he’s not allowed to speak his political thoughts, off duty? According to the Department’s finding in my case, he would have to seek permission from SPD prior to every public media appearance, since he’s not of proper rank to speak to the media.
SPD Manual, Media Relations indicates only a Public Information Officer (PIO) or an On Scene Commander, lieutenant or above, may represent the Department to the media. An on scene commander indicates the policy applies to representing the department at police incidents. In fact references to a police incident, scene, or activity occur over 80 times in this six-page policy, while there are 0 references to speaking as a private citizen while off-duty.
SPD Manual, Standards & Duties pertains to officers speaking on behalf of the Department or Chief of Police. And it prohibits officers from publicly criticizing law enforcement agencies, policies, and personnel, or interpreting Department policy, while on duty or in uniform. Which I did not do. (Ironically, the Chief and the OPA Director did do this to me).
The investigation added to my forced silence because an officer is under orders not to discuss ongoing OPA/IIS investigations. So, with the initial verbal order to shut up and the subsequent investigation, I was effectively muzzled.
Incidentally, I find the City and Department official’s purported shock about the article disingenuous if not ridiculous. This article was the last in a four-article series regarding the RSJI issue I’d written, which appeared in the Guardian in 2010. While conducting research for those articles I was in contact with the City and Department personnel responsible for RSJI and DWLS3 policy implementation.
By silencing me the City and Department accomplished their goal. For more than seven months I kept quiet against my will. Do they hope thuggish intimidation tactics will keep me quiet in perpetuity? Well, I don’t know about you, but my First Amendment rights are pretty damned important to me. It’s not that I won’t let this go, it’s how can I let this go? I’d be letting down not only myself, but also every cop on this department if I did that. The order that applied to me, also applied to all my brother and sister officers and sergeants.
Police Officers have the same constitutional rights while off duty and speaking for themselves as any other American—PERIOD! And it seems we must guard our rights jealously and when necessary fight for them fiercely, because there are those who obviously don’t believe cops have these same rights, and will trample them if they deem it politically expedient.
The RSJI-DWLS3 issue as a news story died early this year, but it didn’t die a natural death. The local and national media had great interest in it, but after the City silenced me, an opposing political view lost a vocal advocate. National and local media had begun investigating the issue and several outlets contacted me to provide an opposing view on air as a private citizen, but due to the Department’s order, I was forced to decline these invitations.
This resulted in the City presenting its side of the issue unfettered by something as pesky as an opposing political viewpoint. (Political opposition can be such a nuisance. Just ask the Chinese, Koreans, and Iranians). While FOX News’ Megyn Kelly was superb in questioning City Attorney Peter Holmes about his DWLS3 policy, she simply didn’t have the background someone intimately familiar with the local issue would have, because the Department’s order prohibited me, and I suppose by extension any officer, from accepting her invitation.
I know there are people in this city who don’t like what some officers write in the Guardian. Don’t these thin-skinned, crybabies know it’s called an opposing political opinion for a reason? It seems to me shameful when the mayor of a major American city says an employee with an opposing political view, a view shared by millions of Americans, including a very high percentage of cops (despite what some City and Department officials purport to think), shouldn’t be a police officer if he or she expresses disagreement with the current leadership’s political ideology. Or when the police chief of that same major city publicly refers to an officer’s writing a political opinion as, “a stupid thing to do.” (Chief Diaz- The Weekly Jan. 2011)
I’d ask those who disagree with me politically to consider the tyranny of using official police department disciplinary proceedings to silence opposing thought. To launch an investigation, in order to keep a city employee from expressing a personal political point of view while off duty, is astounding. Especially coming from a Department that allowed an employee to send out an official Department email containing a closing quote from Communist icon Che Guevera.
Take for example the Stranger, within whose pages this controversy initiated, and with whose political point of view I almost always disagree. I don’t hold any personal animosity toward the publication for the negative things they’ve written about me. They have every right to their opinion, just as we police officers have a right to express our opinions as private citizens while off duty, whether Democrat, Socialist, Republican, Libertarian, or Independent. I support the Strangers’ First Amendment rights, as well as the Seattle Times, King 5 TV, Publicola.net, etc., and I would hope they support ours.
If the City and Department get away with violating my constitutional rights in this instance, does anyone have any doubt that certain City and Department leaders would repeat this behavior in a heartbeat against any one of us if it became politically “necessary” again?
The City and Department’s actions have also had a chilling effect on officer’s free speech in general. I know of one officer who pulled an article he’d already submitted to the Guardian, and a sergeant who decided not to submit one he’d written, both for fear of similar media derision and retaliation by City and Department officials. How reprehensible is that? I can only imagine how many other officers have not felt free to express their opinions. Is Seattle being run (or should I say ruined) by an intolerant thugocracy?
I have been writing Guardian articles for about 19 years under various City and Department administrations. And while these administrations were also admittedly politically left, no one ever acted in such a mean-spirited way.
It’s sad that too many people in Seattle, including some City and Department officials, apparently fail to acknowledge just how fortunate they are to have such remarkable law enforcement professionals still willing to serve and protect. If they’re not careful, they’re in jeopardy of losing what I am a proud veteran of, and what I truly believe is, the best police force in America.
Seattle Police Department Policy and Procedure Manual, Standards & Duties, Sec.: IV.B.4. “This provision is not meant to restrain an individual’s expression of free speech rights.”