Interim Seattle police Chief Adrian Diaz has demoted the assistant chief who was in charge when riot-gear clad officers spewed tear gas and fired blast balls into a crowd of demonstrators on Capitol Hill in June after an officer’s tug of war with a protester over a pink umbrella.
Steve Hirjak, an assistant chief since 2018 who was the incident commander during the June 1 clash that became a seminal moment during last year’s demonstrations, will be returned to a captain’s rank.
Diaz’s decision, laid out in a letter Wednesday to City Councilmember Lisa Herbold and posted on the department’s website, comes two weeks after he announced he was overturning a recommendation from the city’s police-accountability office to discipline a lower-ranking officer who gave the orders for the department’s response to protesters that night.
Three sources separately confirmed to The Seattle Times Wednesday that the assistant chief described in Diaz’s letter, which didn’t name him, was Hirjak. Spokespersons for the department didn’t immediately respond to an email Wednesday. Hirjak declined to comment.
Diaz explained in his letter that, as he previously announced when overturning the recommended discipline against the unnamed lower ranking officer, he “did not believe it was fair or principled” to hold that officer responsible for “circumstances created at a higher rank of command …”
“We owe it to both the community and to our officers who are tasked to operate within a framework rooted in command decisions to ensure that we identify and address root causes of outcomes that we all can acknowledge were problematic,” Diaz’s letter said.
“For this reason, and considering all of the information that has come before me and performance that I have personally observed, I am writing to advise that I have removed the Incident Commander from the position of Assistant Chief and returned him to the Captain rank” as required by city code.
The “pink umbrella” clash unfolded near the department’s East Precinct, when some demonstrators — who stood facing a line of officers across a barricade — started opening umbrellas to guard against pepper spray police threatened to deploy, videos show. An officer standing in the police line then grabbed a pink umbrella from one of the protesters, setting off a tug of war that sparked an eruption of tear gas, flash-bang devices and pepper spray, sent people running and eventually prompted police to declare a riot.
It was a prominent moment during the summer protests against police brutality — one that the city’s Office of Police Accountability determined in January findings violated rules given that the “weight of the evidence shows that the large majority of the crowd was not acting violently at the time.”
The OPA’s review didn’t substantiate police explanations that the umbrella posed a threat to officers, or that it could have concealed illegal activity. Police contentions that demonstrators were throwing objects and that the department had learned of unspecified threats to burn down the East Precinct also didn’t justify the widespread crowd dispersal at the time, the investigation found.
Diaz’s decision to overturn the OPA’s recommendation — a rare move that’s happened just four times in 433 cases from 2017 to 2020 — was met with criticism by activists and some officials, who saw it as slap in the face for police accountability.
The city’s Community Police Commission, which was created under a 2012 federal consent decree, said in a statement then that Diaz’s decision to overturn the recommendation “denies justice to thousands of Black Lives Matter protesters who marched against police brutality only to be met by indiscriminate police violence.”
OPA Director Andrew Myerberg declined to comment Wednesday on Diaz’s latest decision to demote Hirjak, other than to say: “That’s the chief’s prerogative.”
City Councilmembers Lisa Herbold and Andrew Lewis said they still want to know more about how the events of June 1 played out and what factored into Diaz’s decision.
Herbold raised questions about what Diaz was referring to when he said in his letter that “planning, logistics, communications, decision-making, and staffing analyses” had “laid the groundwork for the escalation of tensions that followed.”
“Further, these sound like systemic issues that might not be solved by one demotion,” she said.
The OPA should supplement its review with a look at the assistant chief’s role, Lewis said, noting that Diaz hasn’t disclosed whether Hirjak’s alleged responsibility for the chaos stemmed from an order he gave, an action he neglected to halt or some strategic error.
“This is going to go down as a historic moment … and we need a record of what happened, the timeline for what happened and accountability,” Lewis said in an interview Wednesday, arguing that Diaz’s decision-making process on the assistant chief apparently left the civilian-led OPA out of the equation. “This assistant chief may have been a big player, but what I have not seen is a supplemental narrative that explains how he fit in.”
The day after Diaz announced he was overturning the OPA’s recommendation of discipline for the lower-ranking officer, the chief said in an update that additional information had surfaced “which was not included in the OPA investigation.” Lewis said the new information should be shared with the council and the public.
The council member added, “I’m not saying I disagree (with Diaz’s decision). I’m saying let’s get more information.”
According to Hirjak’s professional biography, he’s worked for the department since 1993 and was promoted to assistant chief three years ago. His previous assignments include patrol supervisor, domestic violence detective, OPA investigator, captain of the force investigation team and assistant chief of homeland security.
Staff writers Elise Takahama, Sara Jean Green and Daniel Beekman contributed to this report.