After 16-year-old Fernando Esqueda was fatally shot in a drive-by shooting in April 2005, then-Seattle police Officer Adrian Diaz was assigned to work with young people and help develop youth programs at the South Park Community Center.
In the years following, Diaz’s work with those young people, through activities like after-school programs, basketball and a boxing club, helped keep them safe, said Carmen Martinez, a former city parks employee who worked alongside Diaz at the community center.
Since 2005, South Park has only had one youth killed in a shooting, 16-year-old Dallas Esperaza, who was gunned down in February 2018, said Martinez, who is now the manager of the Duwamish Valley Youth Corps. She credits Diaz and the Seattle Police Department’s youth violence-prevention programs for the neighborhood’s decade-long stretch between fatal shootings involving teens.
“There isn’t a kid down here who hasn’t heard of or knows Officer Diaz,” Martinez said, noting that even though Diaz has risen through the ranks, to the kids in South Park, he’s still Officer Diaz.
Now, Diaz is to be named interim Seattle police chief after Seattle police Chief Carmen Best announced at a Tuesday news conference that she is retiring from the department on Sept. 2. Her decision came after the Seattle City Council voted to cut her salary and the salaries of her command staff in what Best said was a punitive, arbitrary move.
Best said the council’s “overarching lack of respect for the officers,” especially after the department worked to hire diverse police recruits who are now poised to lose their jobs due to proposed cuts to the department’s budget, compelled her decision to leave the force after nearly 30 years in uniform.
Diaz, who was promoted to deputy chief earlier this year, previously served as an assistant chief in charge of the department’s Collaborative Policing Bureau, according to his SPD profile. Hired in September 1997, he began his career in patrol and was assigned to a bike unit before working as an undercover officer with the Anti-Crime Team. Later, he joined the Investigations Bureau, the profile says.
Diaz earned a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from Central Washington University and a master’s degree in public administration from the University of Washington, according to SPD.
“Our department has had rough times during my career, but I believe this is the most challenging time in our history,” Diaz said during Tuesday’s news conference at City Hall. “Re-envisioning public safety, defunding the police and a discussion of the role race plays in all our governmental systems — these are at the forefront of our current challenges.”
Every aspect of society, including the criminal justice system, carries with it disparities rooted in what Diaz called this country’s “original sin of slavery and racism.”
“The Seattle Police Department is committed to transforming public safety into a model that is equitable and just for all,” he said.
Diaz thanked Best for her leadership, mentorship and friendship and said his job will be to “move the department forward.”
Diaz is extremely hard-working, well-known in the community, and is loyal to SPD and the city, said one Seattle police officer, who like other officers interviewed for this story asked not to be named because they hadn’t been cleared to speak with the media.
A married father of three school-aged children, Diaz “is a good guy. He doesn’t get shook much. He’s steady,” the officer said.
Another officer said Diaz is well-liked among his peers, but has little to no operational policing experience, having spent most of his career in community outreach positions. Diaz did not score well in the department’s promotional tests — he was promoted last to the lieutenant’s rank among his testing group in 2015 — but Best liked his personable style and viewed it as an asset for building ties with the community, the officer said.
Another veteran officer acknowledged Diaz’s limited experience in operations but said Best may have spent even less time on the streets than Diaz did.
“You don’t have to know everything, you just have to have people around you who know how to do it and can handle operations,” the officer said.
Diaz, he said, “knows the community and he’s seen it as a sergeant, a lieutenant, an acting captain and an assistant chief. It’s his strong suit for sure.”
That’s certainly true in South Park, said Martinez of the Duwamish Valley Youth Corps.
Two young men who worked as recreation leaders at the community center have gone on to become Seattle police officers and a young woman who was part of SPD’s Explorer program for youth 14 to 21 — which Diaz ran for years — joined the military, Martinez said.
“This is all the work of Adrian Diaz in the South Park community,” she said.
For the past five years, Diaz has served on the foundation board of the Alliance For Gun Responsibility, which is the alliance’s charitable arm involved in public education, research and implementing gun-violence prevention programs, said the alliance’s CEO, Renée Hopkins.
“Adrian truly is passionate about his community and truly passionate about the youth in the community,” she said. “He’s willing to step into very difficult conversations, which is so needed right now.
“Given the drastic changes that need to happen within policing, there’s no one in SPD I’d rather see step into that role than Adrian,” Hopkins said.
Seattle Times staff reporter Lewis Kamb contributed to this story.