Rantz: Seattle Mayor’s office demands control over police messaging, press officer pushed out
The sergeant who handles media for the Seattle Police Department was involuntarily reassigned after a heated meeting with the mayor. The staff shakeup occurred after the mayor criticized perceived miscommunications between his office and the SPD, where the relationship had otherwise been solid.
Sergeant Randy Huserik’s last day as the public information officer was Wednesday.
According to a source, Huserik learned of the decision a day after a meeting where he objected to Mayor Bruce Harrell’s demand that his office screen and approve all messaging from the police department. The mayor’s office did not deny this demand.
The communications strategy has bothered Harrell, who believed that his office and the SPD are not consistent in messaging. One perceived communications mishap led to a report that upset the mayor.
Two perceived communication missteps angered Harrell
Harrell was reportedly angry with two recent communications missteps that he blamed on the SPD. But it appears that Harrell’s own office was responsible.
The mayor held a meeting after a Seattle Times report revealed that he halted a police effort to crack down on open-air drug use and drug dealing on 3rd Avenue downtown. The Times reported the decision was made at the “last minute,” as officers were ready to use a rarely-enforced law against disorderly conduct near transit stops. It would have made an immediate impact since the department never had the staff to meet Harrell’s promise of six dedicated patrol officers 24/7.
Harrell reportedly blamed the SPD communications team for the Times report. But the revelation came from the mayor’s spokesperson, Jamie Housen.
“At the direction of the mayor’s office, any decisions on enforcement have been postponed,” Housen told the Times.
Before Housen’s statement, an SPD captain offered details on the strategy, presumably not knowing the mayor’s office killed the plan.
Two weeks later, the mayor was miffed by another communications issue.
The SPD posted a photo and note on Facebook explaining that the department donated some equipment to help Ukrainians defend themselves against Russia. The donations included unused helmets, vests, and other personal safety gear. Unbeknownst to the department, the mayor’s office did not want this information made public, according to a source. But no one told the communications department and it’s unclear why they did not want this post to go live.
Mayor’s office seeks more control
According to a source, the mayor held another meeting with stakeholders over his displeasure with the second communication issue.
Harrell was reportedly unhappy for much of the call. He asked that the department run all messaging through the mayor’s office to ensure they’re on the same page and that the department is consistent with the mayor’s statements. But a source says Huserik argued that, in some circumstances, it would not be practical to do so. For example, quick messaging concerning a public safety emergency may be necessary for certain situations.
Harrell wasn’t budging from his position. He reportedly said that if the SPD communications team couldn’t align with his plan, changes could be made.
The next day, a source says, Huserik was informed that he would be involuntarily reassigned.
Mayor’s office doesn’t deny details, otherwise has good relationship with the SPD team
There is no indication of bad blood between the two offices despite this staffing change. But there are some unanswered questions.
The mayor’s office did not dispute anger over the perceived communication mishaps or demand that the department run messaging through their office. And through spokesperson Housen, the mayor’s office doesn’t directly answer if Harrell asked for Huserik to be reassigned.
“SPD staffing and deployment decisions are made by Chief [Adrian] Diaz and command staff. The mayor’s office seeks to work closely with SPD’s communications team, like all departments, to ensure message coordination and alignment,” Housen emailed the Jason Rantz Show on KTTH.
But if all messaging from the SPD goes through the mayor’s office, which would be a new procedure, some argue this ensures Harrell will spin issues around public safety that may benefit him politically.
Spin concern from SPOG
Seattle Police Officers Guild (SPOG) President Officer Mike Solan is unhappy with Huserik’s treatment. And he raises complaints that “some of the information shared with our community is at times filtered intentionally by City Hall to fit a specific political narrative.”
“I think the sergeant’s recent removal/involuntary transfer from SPD Public Affairs is indicative of City Hall wanting to control 100% of the public safety narrative from SPD Public Affairs. It is clear that if you deviate from City Hall’s narrative control, you’ll get removed,” Solan tells the Jason Rantz Show on KTTH via email. “This sergeant has carried the water for SPD Public Affairs for over two years and has worked exceptionally hard for our community. As the labor organization that represents line officers and sergeants within SPD, we must advocate for all members. The SPD Public Affairs sergeant that was involuntarily transferred is yet another example of the city intentionally violating our CBA. SPOG will continue to professionally represent our members, and we are proud to be Seattle police officers.”
I think these concerns are valid. It all depends on how far the mayor’s office goes with its messaging strategy.
The valid concerns
Of course, not all message coordination would lead to spin. It makes sense that there would be some coordination on messaging in certain situations.
But this does open up the SPD to unfair criticism that they may downplay public safety concerns or inaccurately frame data in ways that can help Harrell, who campaigned on tackling the crime wave.
It’s unclear how far the mayor’s coordination demands go. Will the SPD communications team offer comments to reporters working on stories? Or will they effectively provide a statement from the mayor’s office? How easy will it be for the SPD to coordinate messaging when there is a legitimate public safety reason to put statements out quickly? And given the chief of police is chosen by Harrell, it puts Diaz and any future chief in a tough and unfair spot. Can he speak openly and honestly in interviews or do talking points need to be approved by the mayor?
Harrell has publicly supported the police in ways that past mayors have not. He’s certainly more supportive than the city council. But this strategy opens him to legitimate criticism that he’s turning the SPD communications team into another arm of his office, which won’t always support public safety.
Update: Interim Chief Diaz responds
Following the publication of this story, the SPD released the following statement: “All SPD personnel decisions are at the sole discretion of the chief. These decisions are made to ensure alignment between personnel, available assignments, and my vision for the department,” Diaz wrote to KTTH.
Editor’s note: This article was updated on April 27 to reflect comments from interim Chief Diaz.
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