A recently demoted Seattle police commander sued the city of Seattle and interim police Chief Adrian Diaz this week, alleging Diaz discriminated against him and unfairly blamed him for the flashpoint “pink umbrella incident” during last year’s police clashes with racial justice demonstrators.
Capt. Steve Hirjak contends in his 12-page lawsuit, filed in King County Superior Court on Wednesday, that Diaz made him the scapegoat for the misconduct of another commander, Lt. John Brooks, who ordered riot-gear-clad officers to unleash tear gas and blast balls into a crowd on Capitol Hill on June 1, 2020.
The incident — a seminal moment in Seattle’s George Floyd demonstrations last year that was widely captured on video and shared across social media — erupted outside the department’s East Precinct after an officer’s tug of war with a protester over a pink umbrella. The clash drew public outrage and led to a six-month investigation by the city’s Office of Police Accountability, which found Brooks broke department crowd dispersal protocols by ordering the heavy-handed tactics against a largely nonviolent crowd.
The video below from Converge Media captured the “pink umbrella incident” and pepper-spraying of the crowd by police. Warning: contains explicit language.
Nonetheless, Diaz later overruled the OPA’s recommendations and blamed and demoted Hirjak, a 27-year officer and the department’s first Asian American assistant chief, who had been the city’s overall incident commander for the protests at the time.
“Defendants discriminatorily demoted Mr. Hirjak … from his position as an Assistant Chief back to the rank of Captain, treating him differently than similarly situated White officers,” according to the lawsuit, filed by attorney Toby Marshall. “This demotion resulted in lower pay, loss of reputation, diminution of future career opportunities, and emotional distress.”
Dan Nolte, a spokesperson for the city attorney’s office, said Hirjak’s claims are being fully investigated. “The City takes its obligation to provide a workplace free of harassment and discrimination seriously,” Nolte said in a statement.
Hirjak’s suit contends Diaz and former police Chief Carmen Best falsely blamed and mistreated him multiple times while ignoring and even promoting other white commanders who engaged in improper conduct during the tumultuous period that included the department’s controversial abandonment of the East Precinct.
The suit cites multiple examples of such disparate treatment. It says Brooks, besides being found solely responsible for the improper orders during the pink umbrella incident, also racked up 14 misconduct complaints during the protests. Nonetheless, he was promoted to captain, the lawsuit says.
Assistant Chief Deanna Nollette also faced no consequences for allegedly failing “to properly gather or understand relevant intelligence leading up to the 2020 demonstrations,” and leaving the department unprepared, the lawsuit says.
And, under the command of Assistant Chief Thomas Mahaffey, whom Best chose to replace Hirjak as incident commander during the protests, “SPD was held in contempt of court on four separate occasions for the use of tear gas,” the suit alleges.
Mahaffey also later “disregarded Chief Best’s instructions to defend the East Precinct and ultimately abandoned it despite being ordered to retain control “at all costs,” Hirjak contends.
When Mahaffey and his deputies — then‐Capt. Todd Kibbee and Capt. Kevin Grossman — “unilaterally decided” to abandon the precinct, they failed to inform Chief Best of their decision even as they were evacuating officers from the site, the suit says. But none of the officers were disciplined for their actions, the suit says. Kibbee, in fact, was later promoted to assistant chief, it adds.
Following his demotion, Hirjak contends he faced retaliation after filing an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint about it. Diaz allegedly disparaged him as a “terrible” assistant chief in a phone call with community leaders, and then left Hirjak unassigned for two months before placing him in a Special Victims Unit position “that lacks visibility or significant contact with outside agencies,” the lawsuit says.
Hirjak contends he’s the most qualified candidate for another captain’s job, in the Force Investigations Team that he helped to create, which remains open.
“These actions further harmed Mr. Hirjak’s reputation as a police officer,” the lawsuit says. “He has suffered shame and embarrassment because of his demotion and subsequent lack of assignment as well as harm to his future job prospects and standing in the community.”
As part of his demotion, Hirjak, who turned 52 on Wednesday, received a $37,000 cut in pay, which had been $241,363 per year as an assistant chief.
The lawsuit’s allegations largely echo those in a $5.48 million damages claim Hirjak filed against the city in July, which gave the city and Diaz an Aug. 11 deadline to agree to mediate Diaz’s claims. Under state law, damage claims must be filed at least 60 days before a government entity can be sued.
The opinions expressed in reader comments are those of the author only and do not reflect the opinions of The Seattle Times.