Pundits are making a lot of hay over Seattle police chief John Diaz, 55, announcing his retirement just as the mayor's race is heating up. Did the mayor secretly fire the beleaguered chief to improve his ratings? Was Diaz a liability for reforming the department?
Diaz nervously scratched his upper arm on Monday as he told reporters at a hastily called press conference that he's leaving the force because "this is the time to go." Despite a notoriously bumpy three years, Diaz says he's helped shape reforms embodied in a federal court settlement, seen through innovations for handling nonviolent crime, and helped hush the city's crime rate.
"I don't leave from a fight," Diaz said. But when Diaz departs in a few weeks, he will leave behind a leadership vacuum much larger than his position—a vacuum that he deserves some blame for—and one that was particularly evident by looking at the people standing right behind him.
Behind Diaz was Kathryn Olson, who runs the department's investigations into officer misconduct and will soon leave the department. She has declined to serve another term after much of the city council and watchdog groups lost confidence in her. Also behind Diaz was Rich O'Neill, the president of Seattle's police union, which hasn't had a contract since 2010 and has sued to block the monitoring plan for reform. (What future role that union has in blocking reforms and negotiating contracts is unknown.) There were also the two deputy chiefs, Clark Kimerer and Nick Metz, who were passed over for the job of interim chief. (That job went instead to Jim Pugel, an accomplished assistant chief who said his job will be to hold the position until the city finds the "real chief." That Pugel was chosen over his superiors raises questions about the department's highest echelon.)
And finally there was Mayor Mike McGinn, whose approval rating hovers in the 30s and who faces many challengers for the primary election. It's under McGinn that the US Department of Justice sued the Seattle Police Department for patterns of excessive force, that the cops' labor contract lapsed, and that Diaz was appointed. McGinn could soon be gone, too.
From top to bottom of the city, from politicians to bureaucrats to labor, the future of SPD's leadership is a total mystery.
Some folks may find solace in the federal court settlement that requires city officials to take certain steps regardless of who's in charge, but the underlying ailment persists more than ever. Federal prosecutors with the US Department of Justice wrote in a scathing 2011 report that there's one way to fix the problem: "The issues and deficiencies found in our investigation will only be remedied by sustained, consistent, and engaged leadership, coming from the top and carried out through every level of leadership in SPD."
That sustained, consistent leadership is exactly what we don't have.
And it doesn't appear the city will quickly cement a new core of leaders. Tim Burgess—a Seattle council member, mayoral candidate, and former cop—says the search process for a new chief, which takes up to nine months, should not begin until "after the election." So we may not have a permanent chief and stable policing hierarchy until the fall of 2014.
Make no mistake, Diaz stepping down (or being asked to quit, or whatever really happened) is good for Seattle. It creates an opening for a strong communicator to marshal the SPD. And Diaz was never a strong communicator. He admitted as much this week, saying, "I am going to make this a short press conference, because you know how much I love doing these." The city needed a frank, transparent spokesperson who could convince us that an internally toxic culture, a culture that manifested in various incidents of cops caught on tape doing and saying horrible things to people of color, was on the mend. We needed a portal into the department. But Diaz always seemed like more of a door than a window.
As for our interim chief, I need to give full disclosure: He was my babysitter when I was a baby. I don't recall meeting him until I was an adult. This is a small town.
That said, Pugel has led SPD's criminal investigations since 1981. Many innovations at SPD have been thanks to Pugel, such as the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program, a project that provides drug-law violators with social services instead of jail cells. "It is a welcome development for such an innovator in drug policy reform to take the helm in a major police department," says Laura Thomas, deputy state director of the Drug Policy Alliance.
If there's one thing Pugel's got on Diaz, it's frank talk in spades. "[Diaz] and I have gotten into some serious arguments about how to do stuff," Pugel explained at the lectern, the sort of glimpse into internal disputes you rarely hear from cops. "I think you know that I have always been as open and honest as I can with you guys."