THE PEOPLE BEHIND THE CHIEF: In front is retiring chief John Diaz. Behind him from left to right are police union president Rich ONeill, Deputy Chief Nick Metz, police disciplinarian Kathryn Olson, new interim chief Jim Pugel, and Mayor Mike McGinn.
  • THE PEOPLE LEFT BEHIND THE CHIEF: In front is retiring chief John Diaz. Behind him from left to right are police union president Rich O'Neill, Deputy Chief Nick Metz, police disciplinarian Kathryn Olson, new interim chief Jim Pugel, and Mayor Mike McGinn.

A lot will be made of Seattle police chief John Diaz leaving just as the mayor's race heats up.

For his part, Diaz nervously scratched his upper arm this afternoon as he told reporters that he's retiring, not because he's an albatross in the mayor's reelection campaign, but because "this is the time to go." Despite a notoriously bumpy three years, 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 to a 55-year low. "I don't leave from a fight," he said.

But when Diaz steps down in the next 45 days, he will leave behind a leadership vacuum much larger than his position—a vacuum that he helped create while in the job—but one that was particularly evident by looking at the people standing right behind him.

There was Kathryn Olson, who runs the department's investigations into officer misconduct and will soon leave the department. She declined to serve another term after much of the city council and watchdog groups lost confidence in her job performance. Also behind Diaz was Rich O'Neill, the president of Seattle's rank-and-file 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 an unknown.) There were also the two deputy chiefs, Clark Kimerer and Nick Metz, who were both 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 "a real chief." But that Pugel was chosen over his superiors raises questions about leadership in the department's highest echelon.

And finally there was Mayor Mike McGinn, whose approval rating hovers in the 30s and who faces a muscular pack of challengers in this year's reelection campaign. It's under McGinn that the city was sued by the US Department of Justice, that the labor contract has lapsed, and that Diaz was appointed in the first place.

The long and short: From top to bottom of the city, politicians to bureaucrats to labor, the future of SPD's leadership is a total mystery.

Some folks may find solace in a federal court settlement that requires the city to take certain steps regardless of who's in charge, but the thing that got the city sued—a lack of leadership—persists more than ever. Federal prosecutors at the US Department of Justice wrote in a scathing 2011 report about the city's excessive force and racial bias 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."

And that's exactly what we don't have.

A report released this month on the SPD's handling of May Day 2012 protests made essentially the same point about "confusion regarding command." It found that a lack of preparation, poor training, and unclear directives to the rank-and-file officers contributed to downtown mayhem.

Unfortunately, it doesn't look like the city will be quick to cement a new core of leaders. "I think that the next police chief should come from outside the department," says Tim Burgess, a Seattle Council Member, former cop, and one of the people running for mayor. Burgess says the search shouldn't begin until "after the election" so that it's not tainted by politics.

Make no mistake, Diaz stepping down—or being asked to quit, or whatever really happened—is good for Seattle. It finally creates an opening for a strong communicator to assume the role while the city slogs through a settlement to erase patterns of excessive force.

But there's no way strong leadership will quickly fill all the department's shoes. With a search process that may not begin until next year and which then takes another nine months after it's started, we may not have a permanent chief named until fall of 2014, which will then be halfway through the city's five-year settlement plan with the Feds.

Diaz's Big Shortcoming

Diaz was never a strong communicator, and he admitted as much today when he said, "I am going to make this a short press conference because you know how much l love doing these."

Diaz was chief for less than three years, appointed in August 2010 after a national search crumbled when the leading contender, Rick Braziel, dropped out of the running in the closing weeks. So the onus was always on Diaz to prove himself competent. And while he succeeded by metrics that would render him hallowed by most standards, he always flopped on stage. The city needed a frank, transparent spokesperson who could convince us that an internally toxic culture, a culture which manifested in too may 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.

Standing at a today lectern, Diaz's speech was awkward. Even his introductory premise was bizarre, explaining that in the last few years we "saw some of the worst crimes in our city." Police fought those crimes, found murderers, and drove down our rate of serious crimes to the lowest they've been since Kennedy was president, he explained.

But the mayor made a strong case for his successes. Under Diaz, an officer was fired for lying for the first time ever in SPD history, the department proactively fixed its trespassing policy (which allowed officers to arbitrarily banish people from public spaces on private property), the city implemented the Drug Market Initiative and Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program to keep nonviolent drug offenders out of jail and in social programs.

"Under Chief Diaz, the department has made major strides in individual officer accountability, policy innovation, reform of protest policing, and crime reduction," says Lisa Daugaard, the deputy director of the Defender Association, a public defense firm. "That somehow over the past four years all of that progress has felt like less the sum of its parts, I think, is because of more than a decade of accumulated dissatisfaction."

"It's going to take a significant period of time to turn perception around to match the gains on the ground," Daugaard says.

About Our New Chief

I need to make make full disclosure: I don't remember the first time I met Jim Pugel. I was a baby—he was my babysitter. I don't recall meeting him until I was the permit-holder for Seattle Hempfest and he was a commanding officer.

With that said...

While others took turns addressing reporters, Pugel stood by stoically, looking down, hands clasped and his thumbs forming a steeple. "We are very lucky that Jim Pugel will be taking over as the acting chief," Diaz said.

Pugel, an SPD veteran since 1981, has essentially been the department's head detective as head of criminal investigations. He's smart and has a cool head in front of an audience. During the Cafe Racer shootings last year, it was Pugel who delivered the (sometimes graphic) details of the incident and manhunt.

If there's one thing Pugel's got on Diaz, it's frank talk in spadefuls.

"He 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. "But every decision the command staff does is for the betterment of the city."

Many innovations at SPD have been thanks to Pugel, who's been quietly working at the vanguard of national police reforms on drug policy. He's driven the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program, making him one of the few active-duty police officers talking about ways not to arrest drug-law violators.

"Jim Pugel has emerged as a national leader in the effort to move law enforcement toward drug policies based in science, compassion, health, and human rights," says Laura Thomas, the deputy state director of the Drug Policy Alliance. "It is a welcome development for such an innovator in drug policy reform to take the helm in a major police department."

As for being frank with the public, Pugel even hinted that the union itself can be a liability. "A lot of thing things that any police chief has to talk about are confidential. You are exposed on a labor angle and a legal angle," he said. "It is a struggle to be as open as possible on the spot. I think you know that I have always be as open and honest as I can with you guys."

All things considered, Pugel seems the best pick to be Seattle's chief. It's going to be one hell of a job.