Does council have the courage to challenge the mayor's pick for police chief?

Seattle could use new leadership from outside to examine the culture of police administration. Will the city council recognize the need or settle for Mayor McGinn's insider pick?
Crosscut archive image.

Seattle Police Chief John Diaz

Seattle could use new leadership from outside to examine the culture of police administration. Will the city council recognize the need or settle for Mayor McGinn's insider pick?

After Seattle'ꀙs former chief, Gil Kerlikowske, left for a federal post in the Obama administration, Seattle's police department has been administered by longtime officer John Diaz. While he was serving as the interim chief during a nationwide search, unfortunate incidents occurred.

Both incidents, involving the stomping of a detained man and the punching of a jaywalking suspect, appeared to have racial overtones and did little to encourage support for either Diaz or the otherwise good department.

Early on, there had been reason to believe that Seattle leadership might take this opportunity to select a new chief who was a leader and would, over time, effect a change in the department's culture. The administrative leadership within the department was largely part of another era and new challenges, policing strategies, and even technology would require leaders willing to make fundamental changes in how policing is structured in Seattle.

The original search was narrowed to three candidates and, in a surprising turn of events, candidate Rick Braziel, Sacramento's highly regarded chief, withdrew from consideration, leaving only Diaz and one other. Mayor Mike McGinn chose Diaz as his nominee to fill the post.

Seattle's city charter allows the mayor to nominate a final candidate, but requires the city council to confirm the appointment. The city council is now faced with the dilemma of whether to confirm or not confirm Diaz, a candidate who might not have been the city's top choice if Braziel had remained in the running.

A lot of past history, politics, personal baggage, and changing times complicate the decision the council must make. There is no easy decision.

While a selection committee and public comment periods offered an opportunity for residents to share their opinions on what kind of person they hoped would lead the department, we can't really read the minds of those who will ultimately be making the decision. But there are facts and assumptions that will contribute to the Diaz confirmation decision.

In Seattle's colorful past, our police weren't the clean-cut, professional department we now boast. The department was corrupt. But eventually it was cleaned up, reformed, and, since then, carefully massaged to earn respect and a generally good reputation. No mayor or city council wants to upset the apple cart or admit that there are too many problems that need correction, especially ones that would inflame more tensions with minority communities.

Seattle, like most cities, has a unionized police force, represented by the police guild. The guild is a formidable organization that has considerable influence through its labor contract. More than a union, some perceive it as a brotherhood.

Beyond a labor contract's provisions on pay scales, health care, and retirement opportunities, it goes much further under the guise of negotiating working conditions. In this category, there are contractual conditions no other city union contract has. The contract, in effect, gives the union a powerful role in establishing public policies that one might assume is the role of the mayor or city council.

The guild can demand secrecy in some discussions, a role in how any disciplinary action is administered. Senior officers, all guild members, are involved in establishing training policy and guidelines that influence when and how lethal force is applied. The guild can sit on a selection committee for a new chief and has a contractual role in determining who sits on Office of Professional Accountability commission that oversees police misconduct issues.

The guild has, on occasion, issued statements declaring no confidence in a chief. This tends to produce a strong bargaining point for a change in the chief's policies, or it sends a not-so-subtle signal that the chief should start looking for a new job. It has been an unspoken assumption on the part of some that any police chief in Seattle serves at the pleasure of the guild, not the mayor.

The guild has influenced many other decisions that affect operations. A few years ago, the guild influenced the city's thinking when officials were considering the possibility of having officers use or wear video cameras to record their performance. Because of recent incidents, the guild, or at least some officers, may be more interested in renewed discussion of the idea. It's assumed the guild influenced decisions to reduce the number of civilian employees, requiring higher paid commissioned officers to do many clerical or record-keeping tasks that could have been done with lower paid civilian employees.

In almost every way, the 39 senior officers paid over $100,000 per year (not counting benefits or retirement) set the tone or culture of the department. If Seattle leadership hopes to change this culture, they will need a chief of remarkable strength and leadership.

In the recent search for a new chief, the guild gave a cautious nod to candidate Rick Braziel and acting chief Diaz. Shortly thereafter, after interviews with the guild and the mayor, Braziel withdrew his name from consideration.

We may never know what influenced Braziel to change his mind, but speculating on the reasons may be very important to how the city council votes on confirmation. What did Braziel see that changed his mind?

Councilmember Tim Burgess, himself a former cop and member of the guild, was very open in making comments about the potential value of having a chief from outside the department who would change the culture of policing in Seattle. City Attorney Pete Holmes, and a former member of the Office of Professional Accountability group that looks into police misconduct, was even more outspoken, saying Seattle needed new leadership from outside the department.

Both have had an inside view of Seattle policing that the public, the mayor, and the city council never sees. What do they know that we don't?

Council members can confirm the McGinn's appointment and appear to be mending some political fences over other differences with the mayor. Or they can show some independence and courage by asking the mayor to reopen the search for a new candidate for chief. Diaz won't lose a well-paid job and isn't far from retirement, anyway. It's time to see if our council has the courage to test their own conscience and vote for what's best for the city, rather than seeking some political advantage with a vote to confirm.


Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors