The East Precinct Crime Prevention Coalition had an unusual guest speaker tonight—Seattle Police Chief John Diaz—who attended the monthly meeting to have an honest dialogue with residents about many of the violent and incendiary incidents that have plagued SPD under his short span as Chief, which have simultaneously eroded public trust in the department and prompted a review of SPD policies and practices from the Department of Justice.
A public appearance from Diaz is rare—he's been known (and criticized) for a more behind-the-scenes leadership approach. But then again, under his guidance SPD has weathered this swift deterioration of public trust. Diaz finally seems to be acknowledging that a new type of leadership is called for—and he stepped into the role with ease. After a 10-minute speech that hit upon the usual talking points, i.e. policing through fighting crime, reducing fear of crime in neighborhoods, and building community, it was time for audience questions. The questions had two main focal points: SPD's discipline of Officer Ian Birk and Diaz's response to radical, police-authored articles (published in a police guild newspaper, The Guardian) condemning the city's Race and Social Justice Initiative and the city's "socialist" agenda in general.
Here's how Diaz responded to criticisms that the The Guardian articles made SPD look really, really bad: "You’re absolutely right, it is bad. It’s bad for this entire organization, for the community. It’s a stupid thing to do. I’m taking as strong a stance as I can on this issue... It doesn’t do the union any good or the department any good. You can’t hide and just say, ‘well this is my union paper.’ It’s there for anyone to take a look at. It reflects badly… it degrades trust in our police department."
That said: "The issues [Officer Steve Pomper] discussed he did on his own time in his union paper," explained Diaz. "The SPD stance is—the vast majority of officers—we firmly and wholly support that program. It’s critical to how we run our department and our city. What I demand from our employees—and I’ll hold them to it—I base my decisions on how they handle themselves at work. It’s been frustrating for me, we’ve spent a lot of time talking about one individual in our department who has a different opinion... We’re shaping a picture based on the outlier. I protect people’s first amendment rights, if it steps over the line and becomes a behavior issue it’s mine to deal with."
Diaz did well without a microphone in front of his face. He was relaxed, he was audible, he was funny. He was reassuring. Here's what he said when questioned about the Department of Justice's review of SPD: "I need you to hear it from me—I welcome [the DOJ]," said Diaz. "There are specific cases I want them to look at—issues of training. Look at our training. If they see approaches we can do better, I welcome that. I welcome a review of what we’re doing."
Diaz was also repeatedly questioned about Officer Birk's shooting of John T. Williams. People wanted to know why Birk still held a job within SPD: "We have a process. What I can say is there’s been an internal review, it’ll be out for everybody to see, you’re going to get to see the decisions made by a variety of people. You need to hold me accountable for what those decisions are."
Then he explained the steps SPD will take to discipline Officer Ian Birk: "In two to three weeks, I expect to hear from [the King County] prosecutor. I’ll be making a decision based on what his decision is and what came out of the firearms review board. I expect that decision to be made in the next month or so."
Diaz also repeatedly touched on themes of responsibility and accountability, acknowledging that citizens needed to be able to "give feedback and know that officers are actually listening to it. If we do that, we can build community." He added, "sometimes we make huge mistakes. Those are the ones you have to hold me accountable for. To see how those things are addressed."
This was damage control done right (albeit a little late in the game). After answering questions for an hour, Diaz highlighted some cool projects SPD is working on that residents will respond well to. The department is launching another Drug Market Initiative in the city and is working to improve how residents receive accurate, relevant crime information by developing communication apps that would disseminate crime info to relevant neighborhoods. For example, Diaz mentioned the suspect recently caught in connection with several assaults in Lincoln Park. "Wouldn’t it have been great if we put something out that same day, saying this what occurred, here’s a way to keep other people safe?" Diaz asked. "We need to be more systematic about putting that info out there every single day."
Diaz's sudden attendance at local crime prevention meetings, along with other public commitments—like to attend the Stranger-sponsored Police Accountability Forum on February 3—show that he's finally willing to step out in public and address criticisms raised against his department head on. It's a very good step.