John Diaz has admirers — and some skeptics. Even a supporter says, "we're not going to give him any slack."
Mayor Mike McGinn went with the safe choice.
In naming John Diaz as Seattle’s next police chief, the city gets a respected, soft-spoken leader known for keeping a low profile.
The 52-year-old is a 30-year veteran of the force and would be the first chief picked from the ranks in more than three decades.
After being introduced by McGinn at a Thursday news conference, Diaz said the most frustrating criticism of his leadership is that he represents the status quo. Seattle’s Police Department is progressive, he said, and willing to seek the most innovative ideas in policing.
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“I don’t market the department well,” Diaz acknowledged. “I need to get better at this and lay out all the initiatives we have out there. They’re pretty incredible.”
Diaz would be Seattle’s first minority chief, a Latino whose mother is a Mexican immigrant who spoke little English as he was growing up. His ethnicity can only help with Seattle’s minority communities, whose long-strained relationship with the department has been further bruised by recent videos of officers using questionable force on minorities.
The mayor’s choice satisfies the 1,281-member Seattle Police Officer’s Guild, who supported Diaz over the remaining finalist, Chief Ron Davis of the 39-member East Palo Alto, Calif. Police Department.
The City Council, on the other hand, has been tepid over Diaz’s appointment, although its members concede he will likely win confirmation. Councilman Tim Burgess, who chairs the Public Safety and Education Committee, promised a thorough interview process. A confirmation schedule will be announced early next week.
While Thursday’s announcement ended the guessing game of who the mayor would pick, a defining moment in the process actually happened more than two weeks ago, when Sacramento, Calif., Police Chief Rick Braziel, one of the three finalists for the job, withdrew.
There was private dismay by some at City Hall and on the force over the loss of an outside candidate who promised to inject some healthy changes into an already progressive department. The Guild liked Braziel if McGinn wanted an outsider, but backed Diaz.
Though Diaz has had his detractors, he also enjoyed widespread support during the search. Now, going forward, he must develop relationships on several fronts.
Seattle Times staff
Mayor Mike McGinn: ‘Integrity was just rock-solid’
As McGinn began the process of picking a chief, interim Chief John Diaz couldn’t catch a break.
There were those videos: one showing two Seattle officers stomping a prone Latino man, the other of a white cop slugging a 17-year-old black girl over a jaywalking incident. Both went viral, making national news.
Meantime, Belltown was stung by a string of after-hours shootings and assaults.
It was Diaz’s quiet competence handling those crises that won him the job, McGinn said.
“I don’t know if it was like a light bulb clicking,” the mayor said. But as the two worked through the difficult questions surrounding recent events, “his integrity was just rock-solid in that process.”
On Tuesday, McGinn said he had made his choice. But he didn’t tell Diaz until after the two had appeared at a news conference on bolstering late-night policing in downtown Seattle.
On Thursday, McGinn said he might not have made the same decision six months ago.
“A lot of people, if they don’t have the opportunity to sit down and work with Chief Diaz, they might come to a conclusion based on his abilities in front of a microphone,” the mayor said. “I think that’s a mistake.”
Diaz not only can run the department, McGinn said, but the two could work well together. McGinn’s decision came three weeks after the final interviews with Diaz and finalist Chief Ron Davis of East Palo Alto. During that time, City Attorney Peter Holmes urged the mayor not to pick Diaz, while some on the council warned McGinn not to select Davis. Others suggested the mayor should restart the process.
None of that swayed him, McGinn said. “There were a lot of people out there trying to drive agendas. I was focused on the agenda of who would be best.”
— Emily Heffter
Seattle City Council: Concerns — and expectations
The City Council has concerns about Diaz, but it’s likely to confirm him.
It may also use the confirmation process to try to stake out a more active oversight role of the Police Department.
“Unlike most confirmations, this one is likely to identify specific opportunities for improvement, so we’re likely to have some kind of an understanding with the chief as to what he’ll be focusing on,” said Councilman Tim Burgess.
Burgess said he wants the department to set measurable goals and enhance its use of technology. He wants more focus on regional “criminal enterprises,” like gangs that traffic in young girls for street prostitution.
Councilmember Bruce Harrell said he hopes to see “strong and creative” leadership from Diaz — more than he’s shown as interim chief. Diaz’s reaction to a video showing two officers kicking a man in April also was disappointing, Harrell said.
If council members seem less than thrilled about Diaz, it’s because they have concerns, Harrell said.
“People do want change, and positive change, and bold leadership,” he said. “I think that is the issue … coupled with the fact that he has a more reserved personality, there seems to be a disconnect.”
Councilmember Sally Bagshaw said she is pleased with the mayor’s choice. “We got by far the better of the two candidates,” she said, referring to the other finalist, East Palo Alto’s Ron Davis.
She said she intends to press Diaz to talk about what he could do better in terms of de-escalation training — referring to the video showing an officer punching a teenage girl.
As an insider, said Councilmember Sally Clark, Diaz may have felt he couldn’t speak out strongly about the punching incident and another video showing two officers kicking a suspect. “I support John,” Clark said, “but also, I’m going to have a lot of questions for John.”
— Emily Heffter
Race relations: ‘We’re not going to give him any slack’
An immediate challenge facing Diaz is mending relations with Seattle’s minority communities.
The mistrust dates back years. And Diaz will have to overcome the fact that he’s a longtime Seattle cop and commander in a department that is simply not trusted by some minority groups.
If confirmed, Diaz would be the first minority to hold the chief’s job. It’s a position he can use to build on the relationships he already has with minority groups.
But it won’t come easy.
“We’re not going to give him any slack just because we know him,” said Estela Ortega, executive director of Seattle’s El Centro de la Raza, a Latino social-justice organization that supported Diaz when he became a finalist for the chief’s job.
“The jury is still out whether this chief will make a difference in the police department,” said James Kelly, president and chief executive of the Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle. Diaz must prove himself in the African-American community, said Kelly, who praised him for his past work on race issues.
Diaz has championed efforts to curb youth violence and, more recently, agreed to meet with a minority coalition formed in the wake of the kicking of a prone Latino man by two police officers, one of whom used ethnically inflammatory language.
Hubert Locke, a University of Washington professor emeritus, has spent 30 years studying, teaching and serving on boards related to policing and criminal justice. He said Diaz’s career here in Seattle is a major advantage.
“The fact John knows this town, knows its character, knows the strengths and weaknesses of the department, knows where the bodies are buried, are extremely important factors,” Locke said.
Diaz will need to work to rebuild trust with communities of color and make citizens feel safe — particularly in light of recent shootings and an apparent rise in gang violence, Locke said.
“We can’t expect the police chief to work miracles overnight. His leadership will be critical, but it’s going to take the entire city to get on top of these problems,” he said.
Kathleen Taylor, executive director of the Washington state chapter of the ACLU, said Diaz has “important work to do in improving police-community relations.”
“In particular, we look forward to talking with the chief about de-escalation policies, diversion programs and relations with communities of color,” Taylor said.
Diaz said the department takes such criticism seriously.
“The plain truth of it is that no one is harder on the Seattle Police Department than itself,” he said in a written statement. “And the other truth is that we can only succeed in keeping our community safe by working with, for and through the community.”
Ortega, of El Centro de la Raza, said Diaz has integrity and a willingness to listen. Diaz also must recognize that some officers don’t deal well with communities of color, she said, and needs to address that.
Mike Sotelo, chairman of the King County Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and a member of the Seattle Police Foundation, a private group that provides support to the Police Department, said Diaz has an opportunity to show that Latinos can aspire to leadership positions in a city that hasn’t had a great track record of doing that.
“He is also a great role model,” Sotelo said.
— Steve Miletich and Sara Jean Green
Union leaders: ‘He’s been battle-tested’
Union leaders representing rank-and-file Seattle officers and midlevel commanders threw their support behind Diaz, saying he has proved his mettle in 16 months as interim chief.
“He has been battle-tested. … He doesn’t have to earn his street cred,” said Sgt. Rich O’Neill, president of the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild, which represents 1,281 officers and sergeants.
Diaz’s tenure as interim chief “just feels like you’re in a holding pattern, like a plane circling the runway,” O’Neill said. “When he loses the interim label, he can start forging ahead and putting his own fingerprints on things.”
Diaz’s biggest challenge “will be convincing the community — especially the more vocal members of the community who tend to get a lot of press — that this is a top-notch department,” O’Neill said.
The department was built by leaders like Diaz who rose through the ranks, O’Neill said, and deserves to have an internal candidate rise to the top.
“I haven’t agreed with every decision he’s made, but I believe he always tries to make the right call for the right reason, and not for how it’s going to look and not to try and appease somebody,” O’Neill said.
Lt. Eric Sano is president of the Seattle Police Management Association, which represents 61 lieutenants and captains. He said his union “has always supported John Diaz” and commended the job he’s done “in a very difficult year.”
“We are excited to have one of our own as the head guy in charge,” he said.
Pointing out that the city is looking at some significant budget cuts in 2011 and 2012, Sano said Diaz is going to have to find a way to cut the department’s budget while ensuring that police response times and services don’t suffer. “I don’t envy him,” Sano said.
On a personal note, Sano, who is Japanese American, said the appointment of a Latino son of immigrant parents gives hope to other minorities within the department.
“It gives hope that there is no glass ceiling — you can be a Latino or an Asian American or a woman and become chief. It isn’t the ‘good old boy’ system that we’re always hearing about.”
— Sara Jean Green
City Attorney: A pledge from an open critic
As chief, John Diaz will have to work closely with the city’s top attorney, Peter Holmes, a frequent critic of the department’s ability to discipline and train its officers.
Holmes, who once headed a civilian panel that questioned the department’s handling of internal investigations, became city attorney in January.
Last week, Holmes assailed the department’s leadership over the videotaped jaywalking incident in which an officer punched a teenage girl who had shoved him.
Holmes said the incident would never have occurred if better training and planning had been in place.
He even called for the appointment of an outsider as police chief, a direct swipe at Diaz.
Mayor Mike McGinn said he spoke to Holmes Thursday morning. “He told me that he was committed to working with me and the chief,” McGinn said. Asked what he thought of Holmes’ earlier statements, McGinn said only that “I appreciate what Pete Holmes said to me today.”
Holmes was unavailable Thursday, but on the website for his office said, “I congratulate Chief Diaz on his appointment by Mayor McGinn and pledge to work tirelessly with him to increase the safety of everyone in Seattle while safeguarding our cherished liberties.”
— Steve Miletich and Emily Heffter