SPD’s Public Affairs Director Returns to Job; Is Funny OK Again?

When Kathleen O’Toole, the mayor’s pick to be the next police chief, met the city’s press corps earlier this month, astute observers may have noticed that Sgt. Sean Whitcomb was by her side. If the process had played out six months earlier, that would have been no big deal. Whitcomb has for years served as SPD’s public affairs director—a role that in recent times has brought him national acclaim as his unit moved to become more transparent and engage an often disaffected community with funny blog posts, tweets and stunts. See its handing out of Doritos during last summer’s Hempfest, dubbed “Operation Orange Fingers.”

Whitcomb, however, was removed from his headquarters office and many of his duties last December. As I wrote in February, his sidelining happened amidst larger turmoil roiling through the department. He was not the only one banished from headquarters. So too was Jim Pugel, the former interim chief who was given a choice of retiring or being demoted. (He eventually chose the former and moved on.) As a series of command shake-ups took hold, the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild and The Seattle Police Management Association, both of whom had endorsed Ed Murray for mayor, seemed to gain power.

It was not lost on SPD insiders that Whitcomb’s marginalization followed his complaint against guild official Ron Smith, now the union president. Smith had posted a comment on a colleague’s Facebook page that had a running dialogue about the Doriotos stunt at Hempfest, which ignited controversy in the department. One officer mentioned on the site that he didn’t trust “Johna Spaghetti whatever his name is.” That would be Jonah Spangenthal-Lee, the former Stranger writer whom Whitcomb hired to put some fun in SPD’s social media. Then Smith made a comment that alluded to both Spangenthal-Lee and Whitcomb, saying they would “meet their destiny.”

What did he mean by that? Whitcomb, as well as Spangenthal-Lee, found the statement threatening and both filed a complaint with the Office of Professional Accountability, according to documents released to SW just last week in response to a public disclosure request filed four months ago.

In an interview with an OPA investigator, however, Smith maintained that he meant no physical threat. (In the documents, SPD blacked out the name of the person who made the “destiny” comment and was subsequently interviewed, but it’s clear from context that it’s Smith and the guild president also acknowledged to me back in February that the complaint was about him.) Rather, Smith said he was engaging in “political” talk.

As far back as January 2013, when the guild official sensed that Murray was going to run and told then guild president Rich O’Neill that “we would probably want to get behind his campaign,” Smith had been “extensively involved” in the Murray-for-mayor effort, he told the OPA investigator. And his conversations with the would-be mayor had led him to believe that “the type of shenanigans going on in the media relations office with the cutesy tweets and the blotter postings making fun of everything, everything like it’s Saturday Night Live” would stop if Murray won. (He might have referred instead to Lord of the Rings, a clip from which Spangenthal-Lee included in a post that went viral after pot legalization Initiative 502 passed, entitled “Marijwhatnow?”)

OPA ultimately sided with Smith on the question of political speech vs. menacing threat, and found the complaints unfounded. But on perhaps the more interesting question of where the mayor stands on SPD’s public relations approach, that’s another matter. At the end of April, Whitcomb returned to his old office and, for the most part, his old role. While he was gone, SPD had hired then Seattle Times reporter Andrew Garber as a senior media adviser and he and Whitcomb are now be co-managing the public affairs unit.

After filing his complaint against Smith, Whitcomb had faced a complaint against him from a subordinate who asserted that he had been penalized for not participating in the Doritos giveaway. Apparently, Whitcomb has been cleared. Back at his old desk, the sergeant declines to discuss the complaints other than to say “I’m happy to be back.”

He does mention, however, “that the mayor’s office has been incredibly supportive.” That might suggest that Smith was wrong in his assessment that Murray wanted to shut down Whitcomb’s approach. Or perhaps the mayor learned the hard way that a more traditional, less transparent and definitely less fun approach could be disastrous. Witness the PR nightmare that was the clumsy handling of SPD’s discipline reversal controversy.

On May 4th, about a week after Whitcomb returned to his old job, he and Spangenthal-Lee, who still works in the public affairs unit, dressed up as Star Wars characters and tweeted a picture of themselves.

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