John Diaz was a soft-spoken police chief during some of the most turbulent times in the Seattle Police Department’s history.
To his supporters, his steady hand and quiet approach were a comfort. He was a rock to his troops and the community following the traumatic fatal shooting of Officer Timothy Brenton in 2009.
But his style turned on him after the department came under federal scrutiny and widespread community criticism over several video-recorded confrontations involving his officers, including the 2010 fatal shooting of First Nations woodcarver John T. Williams.
After that, the community and its leaders wanted more than quiet leadership.
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Diaz, 55, didn’t dwell on any of that Monday when he announced he would retire after 33 years on the force.
“I won’t stand here and say that every decision was right, but what I will say is that I tried to make every decision based on what I believed was right,” Diaz said at a news conference where he was flanked by Mayor Mike McGinn and Assistant Chief Jim Pugel, who will replace him as interim chief.
“I leave here pretty proud of my career,” he said. “Is there ever a perfect time? No. But it was time for me to go.”
Diaz, a Latino, was named interim chief in 2009, after the departure of Gil Kerlikowske, and sworn in as the department’s first minority police chief in August 2010. He said Monday that he had accomplished what was asked of him.
He noted that he had steered the department through a Department of Justice (DOJ) investigation, implemented new community policing goals, reduced crime and overseen innovative ways to address it.
The last piece, he said, was the adoption in March of a first-year plan to carry out reforms addressing the DOJ’s finding that Seattle officers routinely have used excessive force. “We’ve gone through some challenges,” Diaz said. “I feel incredibly lucky.”
McGinn said he did not ask Diaz to step down.
“This was the chief’s decision,” the mayor said, without elaborating on when the decision was reached. Diaz also declined to say when he decided to leave, but acknowledged it had been a topic of discussion for several weeks.
But the announcement came less than a week after the latest in a series of department embarrassments.
Last Tuesday, nearly a year after the May Day protests, the department released a highly critical independent review — commissioned by Diaz — faulting command staff for being unprepared to handle the widespread vandalism and violence that erupted.
A day later, a police officer was charged with assaulting a handcuffed suspect who had assaulted the officer’s wife, also a Seattle police officer.
At the same time, another officer escaped a possible assault charge in a separate case. A former Los Angeles police lieutenant hired by the City Attorney’s Office found the investigation had been tainted by an apparent culture of tolerance and failures within the department.
Critics have claimed Diaz is part of that culture, having come up through the ranks and been in the command staff for a dozen years, during which the department has repeatedly been criticized by two blue-ribbon panels and community leaders over failures to address officer misconduct.
Four years ago, when Diaz was named interim chief by then-Mayor Greg Nickels, the city’s major issue was the Alaskan Way tunnel, with public safety barely a blip on the political radar.
Nickels lost in his re-election bid and, after a time, McGinn warmed to Diaz and appointed him permanent chief — but only after a national search.
Since then, police conduct and public confidence in the department have become key issues and the city is spending millions on reforms ordered under a settlement agreement reached with the Justice Department in July.
Diaz has been a lightning rod for McGinn’s opponents, whose criticisms have included questions about the chief’s leadership, and rumors about his departure have swirled within the department for months.
In an interview in his office at police headquarters on Monday afternoon, Diaz said he and McGinn have been talking about his retirement for the past couple months.
While Diaz acknowledged criticism of his quiet leadership style, he said he was raised to listen more than talk.
“Maybe the next chief will be a fire-and-brimstone chief,” he said.
McGinn said the process for hiring a new chief is under discussion, but that a selection likely would not occur until after the election. Diaz will remain as chief during a transfer period over the next 30 to 45 days.
In appointing Pugel as the department’s temporary steward, the mayor — in consultation with Diaz — reached past the department’s two deputy chiefs, Clark Kimerer and Nick Metz, who outranked Pugel.
McGinn said he appreciated Pugel’s directness, honesty and integrity.
Pugel, who joined the department in 1983, now runs its investigation division, which under his leadership has been widely praised for its work on high-profile cases.
He said he takes the reins of a department “poised to move forward at this point.”
Pugel, along with Kimerer and Diaz, was among the 11 semifinalists in the running to replace Kerlikowske, who left the department to head the Office of National Drug Control Policy.
Diaz, in Monday’s interview, said if he has one regret it probably was not spending as much time at crime scenes interacting with officers and victims as he did while on the command staff. But he said it was important for other commanders to gain that experience, while he focused on the department’s budget, personnel, policies and the DOJ investigation.
“I love this career. I wouldn’t trade a minute of it … Even in the worst of times, it’s something I truly believe in,” he said.
Diaz, who long has suffered from insomnia, said being chief hasn’t made sleep come any easier.
“What keeps me awake virtually every night is that phone call I might get … Has there been a violent crime in the city? Has an officer been hurt? Nobody calls me after 11 with good news,” he said. “There’s been a lot of sleepless nights.”
He said it was McGinn’s decision to appoint Pugel as interim chief.
“He knows our command staff backwards and forwards,” he said of the mayor, who has met weekly with Diaz and other police commanders since his election.
Pugel’s work ethic, lengthy career with the department and implementation of an investigative team to examine use of force and a force-review board — as well as his work on the innovative Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program, in which officers can divert low-level drug dealers and addicts into treatment instead of taking them to jail — weighed in Pugel’s favor, Diaz said.
“Plus, he’s a lot more photogenic than me, and he’ll probably talk to reporters more than I would, too,” he joked.
Diaz said he’s most proud of the innovations and new programs that have been developed and implemented on his watch.
“I wish I could say they were all my ideas, but they weren’t. This city is lucky” to have so many officers willing to find new ways to tackle old problems, Diaz said.
“Across the country, people look at the Seattle Police Department as a department willing to try new innovations, new experiments,” he said. “… It’s in the DNA of this organization. A lot of places aren’t willing to try new things because there’s a risk attached to it.”
In dealing with the Justice Department case, Diaz embraced the need for reform while resisting some elements of the changes, including the appointment of Merrick Bobb as independent monitor overseeing the settlement agreement. Diaz also objected to the scope of Bobb’s monitoring plan.
“He (Diaz) had a quiet leadership style that can be both very effective and ineffective,” said City Councilmember Bruce Harrell, who is running against McGinn and heads the council’s public-safety committee.
U.S. Attorney Jenny Durkan in Seattle, who helped spearhead the federal investigation, said in a statement Monday that Diaz had been a key partner in addressing gun violence, dismantling criminal organizations and combating terrorist threats.
“He oversaw the first steps of the implementation of reforms within the Seattle Police Department,” Durkan said. “I am grateful for his partnership and service, and wish him well.”
Calling it a “critical time” for the Police Department and community, Durkan said Pugel has shown before “he can step up and lead.”
“To move us forward, he will need to help guide and implement the full range of reforms and set clear expectations and direction for every officer,” Durkan said.
When Diaz was appointed chief, the department was under fire for several high-profile incidents involving officers and minority citizens. Many of the incidents were caught on video: one showing a Seattle officer threatening to beat the “Mexican piss” out of Latino man; another involving a white cop slugging a 17-year-old black girl over a jaywalking incident. Both went viral, making national news.
During the news conference, Diaz credited McGinn for giving him the opportunity to serve as chief.
“To the men and women of the Seattle Police Department, you have shown me that you’re going to get through it and do it well,” he said to an audience that included his wife, Linda, a Seattle police detective. “I leave here pretty proud of my career here.”
City Attorney Pete Holmes, who has sometimes clashed with Diaz and McGinn while pushing for a more collaborative approach with the Justice Department, issued a statement that read, in part: “He has helped prepare SPD for the reform effort now under way, and richly deserves some R&R before pursuing the next chapter in his life.”
Holmes said he looks forward to working with Pugel “to continue to advance these critical reforms and to ensure that public safety remains our first priority for Seattle.”
Diaz, whose salary is $197,700 and who will earn about $130,000 annually in retirement, said he has no immediate plans other than enjoying the summer with his family and maybe doing some fly-fishing. But he acknowledged he won’t be taking up a hobby or spending his days at home.
“It’s just not me,” said Diaz, whose first priority is to create more balance in his life.
“You can’t let work overwhelm your entire life, and frankly, it has,” he said.
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