The political fate of Mayor Mike McGinn may well be tied to the job performance of the man he chose to lead the city’s Police Department.
Police matters have dominated the mayor’s first term, from the fatal shooting of John T. Williams to a critical report by the U.S. Department of Justice. Seattle Police Chief John Diaz’s retirement Monday, just as the mayor’s competitive re-election campaign is getting under way, removes an easy target for McGinn’s foes. Several already had said the police chief should go.
But Diaz’s departure also puts one of McGinn’s most important decisions into the spotlight. It has not been three years since McGinn held a news conference to announce Diaz was the right person to lead Seattle’s police force at a time when department culture was under heavy scrutiny.
Monday, with a federally mandated reform plan in place, Diaz said “it’s the right time” to let someone else finish the process.
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That leaves the mayor in the politically vulnerable position of defending a Police Department in flux.
“It sort of goes to the issue of a sense of turmoil in the McGinn administration,” said Seattle City Councilmember Bruce Harrell, a candidate for mayor and head of the council’s law and justice committee. “Having your chief retire right during the last leg of his first term, it sort of gives a sense of instability.”
Among the six candidates challenging McGinn, Diaz’s departure changes the discussion to who should be the next police chief.
“This is a golden opportunity now to begin a search for the best replacement,” said candidate Peter Steinbrueck, a former council member who said a big city like Seattle needs an innovative, cutting-edge police chief.
Councilmember Tim Burgess, also running for mayor, said that, with Diaz, there has been “a lack of decisive leadership and clear direction in how he was rallying the men and women of his department.”
Diaz’s departure creates an opportunity to look outside the department for someone new, he said.
Harrell said the next police chief should be direct and willing to speak loudly in times of crisis. Diaz is famously soft-spoken. Unlike Burgess, Harrell said the city should look internally before searching for an outside candidate.
Mayoral candidate and state Sen. Ed Murray said he’s worried about trying to find a new police chief in the middle of a hotly contested mayoral election. It would be best to wait until a new mayor is in charge, he said.
“I worry that the political uncertainty surrounding the outcome of the mayor’s race will lead many top-tier candidates to not apply,” he wrote. “And if we do have a new mayor in November, that leader has to be comfortable with the next chief, or the disruption in the department will be even worse.”
McGinn might have to start the search process before the election, said his spokesman, Aaron Pickus, but he doesn’t expect a new police chief to be hired until next year.
Emily Heffter: 206-464-8246 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter: @EmilyHeffter