Chief Concerns: Let Jim Pugel be

Seattle's new interim police chief inherits a department in disarray. Mayoral candidates should let him tackle the issues outside the glare of the political spotlight.
Crosscut archive image.

Interim police chief Jim Pugel

Seattle's new interim police chief inherits a department in disarray. Mayoral candidates should let him tackle the issues outside the glare of the political spotlight.

When I first heard of the decision by Chief Diaz to retire I was saddened and somewhat relieved, both for him and his family, and for the community of Seattle and the SPD.

Diaz has been through some of the toughest situations any chief in Seattle has ever faced. From telling Officer Timothy Brenton’s family that he will never be coming home, to enduring endless criticism that his leadership is lacking and that SPD is out of control. And, of course, there was the tragic shooting of John Williams by an SPD officer.

His decision to retire in advance of the campaign season was the right move. He knew he was going to be the lightning rod. SPD reform was going to be debated in the heat of the campaign and all kinds of theories and allegations were going to be thrown about as to what is wrong with cops in general and SPD in particular. Diaz obviously fears politicizing the department and driving morale down farther than it already is. While this still may happen to some degree, his retirement lowers the heat.

The Mayor’s decision to appoint Jim Pugel interim chief is also a very good call. Pugel has communication strengths that Diaz lacked (Diaz would admit this freely). Pugel also has lots of experience dealing with difficult commands and negotiating with the feds. He is the right person to shepherd through agreed upon reforms and communicate progress to the public.

But there is one place that the command staff, Pugel included, will have to work a little harder. The men and women in the department are confused about what the public and SPD leadership wants of them. They go to community meetings where people claim they’re not doing enough to fight crime in their neighborhoods, and the Downtown Seattle Association and neighborhood chambers wonder why open air drug markets are ignored. At the same time, they read news reports that they are biased and use unnecessary force.

In short, police officers are like the kid who feels he can’t do anything right, so decides to do nothing at all out of fear that he will be criticized no matter what.

In a department as big as SPD there are many different attitudes, and my description is a simplification. Some cops aren’t affected by the political environment at all and enjoy great job satisfaction. Others are lazy and burned out and walk through their day. Policing is just like every other line of work: there are gradations.

But a recent event at 3rd and Pine downtown illustrated one troubling trend called “de-policing.” The Seattle Times reported that two officers were sitting in their patrol car when they witnessed two men getting into a fight. Instead of getting out of the cruiser to intervene, they used their loudspeaker to tell the two men to move on. The men did move on, but just around the corner one of them stabbed the other. A passerby told the cops what happened.

It would be easy to write this incident off as laziness or indifference, but unfortunately "de-policing" is being talked about more and more openly within the police department. Sources say that some SPD veterans are even advising younger officers to just answer 911 calls and not be proactive on the streets until there is more support for this kind of policing from the political class. That lay-low advice flies in the face of public demands for Seattle police officers to do more to keep city streets safe.

This will be Jim Pugel’s biggest challenge. Hopefully, the campaigners for mayor will give him some room to operate out of the political glare. The resignation of Diaz and the appointment of Pugel makes it more likely that the campaign spotlight will shine on other targets. That's a good thing, because making SPD the center of a hard fought political campaign will inflict long lasting damage on the department.

Finally, no decision and no search should be made until the campaign is over. It is probably a good idea to let the ongoing department of Justice process settle out with Pugel at the helm and then decide whether he’s the man for the job, or whether the city needs to conduct a national search. The point is this: no quality candidate in his or her right mind is going to take the SPD helm right now when the odds for success are slightly better than the Mariners making it to the World Series this year.

So, farewell to Chief Diaz, an honorable man who worked hard for three decades for this community, and hello to Jim Pugel. The road will be rough. But he knows where most of the potholes lie.


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

Jordan Royer

Jordan Royer

Jordan Royer is the vice president for external affairs in the Seattle office of the Pacific Merchant Shipping Association.