By Paul Kiefer
The Guardian, the official newspaper of the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild (SPOG), went out of print a few months into the pandemic. The paper’s disappearance was a sign of an important shift within Seattle’s largest police union, and one that closed a window into the guild’s interior life.
The print-only newspaper, which had a circulation of about 3,000 at its peak, was read mostly by police officers, retired police officers, labor organizers and city hall staffers. When articles from the paper did make it into the public eye, they were generally buoyed by controversy, like a 2011 opinion piece in which an officer called a training course on racial profiling an attack on “American values” and described Seattle’s elected leaders as a “quaint socialist cabal.”
Among SPOG members and retirees, however, The Guardian’s demise was a sign of a strategic and generational shift. The new guild president, Mike Solan, had recently defeated the incumbent, Kevin Stuckey, by promising to aggressively and publicly defend Seattle police officers against criticism from the public and elected city officials. Solan’s dramatic campaign video, featuring footage of riot police clashing with protesters, drew tens of thousands of views. Stuckey’s video, which focused on the guild’s stability and relationships with other unions, drew only a few hundred views.
After his victory, Solan began reshaping the guild’s approach to public relations. A few months after he took office in February 2020, Solan dismissed former SPOG president Rich O’Neill—who had retired from SPD and returned to SPOG to handle contract negotiations and media relations for Stuckey—and quietly shuttered The Guardian. In December of that year, he introduced a replacement: A bombastic monthly podcast called “Hold the Line with Mike Solan“, produced in the style of conservative talk radio shows.
“On the podcast, we hear the president’s opinion. Where’s the rest of the [SPOG] board? What forum does an officer have now to get their opinion out? There isn’t one.”—Former SPOG President Rich O’Neill
Typically, Solan uses his podcast to criticize the Seattle City Council, who he argues have sacrificed public safety and the well-being of police officers to appease an “activist mob.” The details of this criticism vary. In one 90-minute episode, Solan decried Seattle’s “Homeless Industrial Complex”; in another, he condemned the vaccine mandate for city workers as an ill-advised blow to SPD’s already shrinking ranks. In contrast to The Guardian, few other guild members have appeared on “Hold the Line”; instead, Solan relies on guests from outside the police department, ranging from former mayoral candidate James Donaldson to encampment removal activist Andrea Suarez.
While Solan’s allies pointed to The Guardian’s shrinking readership among younger officers as a reason to replace the paper with a podcast, O’Neill does not believe that younger officers were to blame for the paper’s demise. Instead, he said Solan made the change as “a way to give the president more control over the guild’s voice. On the podcast, we hear the president’s opinion. Where’s the rest of the [SPOG] board? What forum does an officer have now to get their opinion out? There isn’t one.”
SPOG published the first issue of The Guardian in 1970 as a venue for editorials about the state of SPD and city politics, announcements about deaths and retirements, updates on contract negotiations, and the occasional recipe. Although the guild appointed officers with writing experience to edit the paper, SPOG’s president had the final say on what made it into print. The paper was mostly written by officers themselves.
“It afforded officers a place to get their frustrations out,” Stuckey said. “If there was a training they didn’t like, they could write about it in the paper.” O’Neill said that he tried to strike a balance between allowing officers to air their opinions and avoiding direct criticism of elected officials or SPD command staff. He did, however, make some exceptions: The paper regularly criticized former city attorney Pete Holmes. Holmes did not return a call for comment.
O’Neill viewed The Guardian as a centerpiece of SPOG’s public relations strategy, and an opportunity for transparency. “It made officers more accessible,” he said. “The department has a policy that says you can’t speak to the press without permission, and if you try to talk to the press anonymously, you can get in trouble. But if you wrote something in the union paper, that was considered protected union speech.”
Some former readers outside the guild, however, believe publishing contentious articles actually harmed SPOG’s mission as a union.
“The thing that stood out to me, and still stands out to this day, was that there were officers who had some views that I saw as pretty racist,” former city council member Mike O’Brien recalled. “And they were comfortable writing about them in something that was going to be distributed around city hall, to people who their union had to work with to get a contract.”
After the 2011 editorial about a training on racial profiling stirred a public backlash, former city council member Sally Clark wrote on her blog that while The Guardian could be a valuable tool for understanding the guild, it sometimes became a “tool for people whose aim is provocation rather than information and critical thinking.”
“As president, your number one job is getting a contract that’s good for your members. If you’re on a podcast slamming [elected city officials] every month, how many yes votes will you get when it comes time for the council to approve a contract?”—Former SPOG President Kevin Stuckey
While O’Neill said The Guardian sometimes printed stories he considered inadvisable, he argued that the paper balanced out its criticism of city officials by occasionally printing stories praising them. After former mayor Jenny Durkan pushed through a contract with SPOG after years of negotiations, for example, The Guardian ran an article commending her decision. In contrast, O’Neill said, the aggressive tone of “Hold the Line” does little to improve relationships between SPOG and elected officials, which he worries will put the guild in a weaker position during its upcoming contract negotiations with the city.
“As president … your number one job is getting a contract that’s good for your members,” he said. “If you’re on a podcast slamming [elected city officials] every month, how many yes votes will you get when it comes time for the council to approve a contract?”
In The Guardian’s final years, Stuckey recalls watching the newspaper’s readership wane as an influx of younger officers joined the guild. “I think it was still a valuable news source,” he said. “I thought it was important to have. But it’s expensive thing to keep running if fewer and fewer people are using it.” Before he lost his reelection bid, Stuckey was searching for ways to cut back the paper’s costs—some $40,000 per year—to keep it alive.
Observers outside the guild have also noticed the strategic shift that Solan’s podcast represents. “SPOG members elected Solan after he ran on a Make Seattle Great Again platform,” former city council president Lorena González said. “Concentrating the voice of all officers [into] his singular voice is yet another red flag of deeply-seated cultural issues at SPD.”
The group that’s probably most frustrated by the death of The Guardian are retired police officers. “A lot of our retired members and widows were downright furious when they stopped getting the paper,” O’Neill said. In response, the Retired Seattle Police Officers’ Association launched its own newspaper, The Call Box, in 2021. The name comes from an SPD newspaper that went out of print after the rise of The Guardian in the 1970s.
The paper rarely includes editorials, with the exception of a September 2021 contribution from the association’s president comparing 2020 to the 1960s, when “riots erupted, cities burned, political conventions spun wildly out of control, Hippies flooded mainstream America, street drugs and free love permeated every level of society and threatened to destroy an entire generation.” Instead, the pages of The Call Box are generally filled by obituaries, real estate advertisements and “where are they now” segments.
Meanwhile, rumors still swirl among some older SPOG members about The Guardian‘s resurrection, possibly as an online newspaper. Solan, however, shows no signs of wavering from his strategy. He did not respond to a request for comment.