A recently demoted Seattle police commander has filed a $5.48 million discrimination and retaliation claim against the city, alleging that interim police Chief Adrian Diaz made him the scapegoat for what became a seminal moment of last year’s police clashes with racial justice demonstrators: the so-called “pink umbrella incident.”

Capt. Steve Hirjak contends in the claim, filed Thursday, that Diaz demoted and falsely blamed him for the improper actions of another commander, Lt. John Brooks, who gave riot-gear clad officers the orders to unleash tear gas and blast balls into a largely peaceful crowd on Capitol Hill on June 1, 2020.

The heavy-handed police tactics, captured on multiple videos that were shared widely and drew public outrage, erupted outside the department’s East Precinct after an officer’s tug of war with a protester over a pink umbrella.

Hirjak, 51, a 27-year veteran who became the department’s first Asian American assistant chief in 2018, contends his May 26 demotion and other mistreatment have marred his otherwise stellar career, “discriminated against me on account of my race and treated me differently from similarly situated white employees.”

An 11-page letter that accompanies the claim, written by Hirjak’s lawyer, Toby Marshall, also lays bare the names of several other high-ranking commanders — all of them white — who he says have either received promotions or avoided accountability despite alleged misconduct or missteps during last year’s demonstrations. The letter provides new insights into what happened behind the scenes during one of the Seattle Police Department’s most tumultuous periods in recent history, including its controversial abandonment of the East Precinct.

Those identified include Brooks, who received a de facto promotion and pay raise despite racking up 14 misconduct complaints during the protests; Assistant Chief Thomas Mahaffey, who hasn’t been disciplined for ordering officers to abandon the East Precinct; and Assistant Chief Deanna Nollette, who faced no consequences for failing “to gather and understand relevant intelligence” and leaving the department unprepared, according to the letter.

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“Discord and strife grew for months under the watch of white Command Staff, like Assistant Chief Mahaffey,” the letter states. “But when the dust settled, only Mr. Hirjak found himself demoted.”

A Seattle police spokesperson did not respond Thursday to a request for comment about Hirjak’s allegations.

Hirjak’s claim also states that, following his demotion, he faced retaliation after filing an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint about it. Diaz allegedly disparaged him to community leaders and left him unassigned for two months before finally placing him in a Special Victims Unit position “that lacks visibility or significant contact with outside agencies even though I’m the person most qualified for an open position that is more prominent.”

Under state law, claims for damages must be filed at least 60 days before the city can be sued. 

Marshall’s letter, sent Thursday to Diaz and Mike Fields, the department’s human resources director, states Hirjak is prepared to pursue a lawsuit, but remains open to mediating an out-of-court settlement. It gives the city and Diaz until Aug. 11 to agree to mediation.

A rare reversal

Even before he demoted Hirjak, Diaz ignited controversy by announcing May 12 that he’d overruled a recommendation from the city’s civilian-led police accountability office by deciding not to discipline Brooks for the pink umbrella clash.

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In a letter to Mayor Jenny Durkan and City Council President M. Lorena González, the chief said his decision was “grounded first and foremost in principles of fundamental fairness,” and said Brooks, whom he didn’t identify, shouldn’t be held responsible “for carrying out decisions made at a higher rank.”

The rare reversal of Office of Police Accountability Director Andrew Myerberg’s disciplinary recommendation essentially snubbed a six-month investigation. It found Brooks, the on-scene commander, had broken two policies when ordering officers to deploy tear gas and blast balls to disperse a crowd that largely “was not acting violently at the time.”

The below video from Converge Media captured the “pink umbrella incident” and pepper-spraying of the crowd by police. Warning: Contains explicit language.

After some council members and others challenged the chief’s reversal, he issued a statement the next day that “additional information has surfaced which was not included in the OPA investigation” and said he would “quickly and fully reach a conclusion on who was accountable for the actions on that day.”

The OPA investigation previously had cleared Hirjak, who had served as the citywide incident commander at the time, after finding he’d delegated authority for making tactical decisions to commanders on the ground and wasn’t responsible for the dispersal orders given that night.

Nonetheless, Diaz announced Hirjak’s demotion from assistant chief to captain on May 26, saying it wasn’t fair to hold Brooks “responsible for circumstances created at a higher rank of command, where I believe accountability … should land.”

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The chief also walked back his statement about “additional information” surfacing, saying there was “no information that OPA did not have,” but rather he’d made his assessment based on a “totality of circumstances.”

“For a Chief to publicly state a decision like this was unprecedented,” Marshall wrote in the letter filed Thursday with the claim. “And Chief Diaz did this during Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month despite having received OPA’s determination on Lt. Brooks nearly six months earlier.”

“Disparate treatment”

Hirjak has experienced discrimination on numerous occasions in his career, but always “swallowed his pride and tolerated” it, according to Marshall’s letter. During the protests, Hirjak contends other commanders constantly “circumvented, rebuffed, or ignored” him, with then-Chief Carmen Best, Diaz and Mahaffey repeatedly undermining his authority.

On May 30, 2020, when Hirjak dispatched bike squads to a park to deal with a gathering of George Floyd demonstrators, Diaz diverted the officers to another location without telling him.

“Chief Best later criticized Mr. Hirjak for that decision and while Mr. Diaz was present for the chiding, he chose to remain silent rather than own up to his role,” the letter states.

A few days later, after Best replaced Hirjak with Mahaffey as the citywide incident commander, she allegedly let Mahaffey skip a 7 a.m. briefing with Durkan, telling the mayor Mahaffey “had worked until 3:00 a.m. and needed sleep.” But Hirjak, who also had been up all night and regularly working 19-hour shifts, had to participate in the June 3 call.

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“Chief Best never made an exception for Mr. Hirjak even though he worked the same hours,” the letter states.

Once Mahaffey took command, he “authorized the use of tear gas and blast balls to disperse crowds many times” and “disregarded instructions to defend the East Precinct and ultimately abandoned it,” the letter states.

When Best ordered Mahaffey “to retake the precinct,” he instead “sent only a small contingent of officers and eventually retreated rather than reclaim the area,” Marshall wrote.

“Mahaffey and his deputies, including then‐Captain Todd Kibbee and Captain Kevin Grossman, had unilaterally decided to leave the East Precinct and failed to tell Chief Best even while they were coordinating with the officers on site to evacuate.”

Best and Durkan later wouldn’t say who made the call to give up the station, as protesters took over several blocks around it, and the matter became a point of contention in several lawsuits against the city. Yet the claim states Mahaffey, “despite being insubordinate to the Chief of Police and Mayor,” hasn’t faced discipline, nor have Kibbee or Grossman.

Meanwhile, then-Capt. Bryan Grenon, “who is also white, received accolades for work he performed and was later promoted to Mr. Hirjak’s former position of Assistant Chief — despite being the Captain on scene” during the pink umbrella incident, according to the letter.

“The point here is not that other officers should have been punished,” the letter states, “it is that Mr. Hirjak was the subject of disparate treatment when Mr. Diaz demoted him over the actions of Lt. Brooks and the broader failures of the SPD in response to the 2020 demonstrations — failures outside the control of Mr. Hirjak.”