Candidates pile on chief's departure: An opportunity for change

Seattle mayoral candidates called the departure of Seattle Police Chief John Diaz a chance to push for more rapid change. But when should the search begin?
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Seattle Police Chief John Diaz

Seattle mayoral candidates called the departure of Seattle Police Chief John Diaz a chance to push for more rapid change. But when should the search begin?

While Mayor Mike McGinn paid considerable attention to praising his outgoing police chief, John Diaz, and boasting of police innovations, McGinn's challengers and critics of the Seattle Police Department welcomed the departure as an opportunity for new changes.

Most of them praised Diaz personally, but said the city needs to push much more aggressively to improve practices, get in better touch with neighborhoods across the city and implement higher standards and goals. Reflecting the tone of others, Bruce Harrell, head of the City Council's public safety committee and a McGinn challenger, said he felt a "sense of urgency" about seizing the chance for change within the department.

“I am very grateful for the time [Diaz] served," Harrell said. "I do think we have great opportunity in front of us."

Harrell is also concerned about the prospect of a police chief search that could be started under one mayor and potentially completed by a new mayor. But he said it was important to move quickly. Fellow candidate Peter Steinbrueck voiced no objection to McGinn's plan to start the search now. "I think the final decision should await the election," he said, which is what McGinn proposed during the Monday morning press release in which Diaz announced his retirement.

State Sen. Ed Murray, another mayoral challenger, disagreed. He said the search should be delayed until after the November election for mayor. The uncertainty around an election could keep many top national candidates from applying, he argued in a statement. "I know waiting that long is not ideal, but we need to get this right, and conducting a thorough search free from political uncertainties is critical to ensuring the process is a success. The prudent move would be to get past the current turbulent political landscape rather than rushing to select a new chief.”

Other candidates agreed. City Councilmember Tim Burgess said he "absolutely" believes the appointment should wait, and that it should be someone from outside the department. He noted that a leading candidate for police chief, who originally applied when Greg Nickels was mayor, withdrew after meeting his replacement, McGinn. 

Kate Martin, took the argument a step further, saying it's crucial for Seattle to select four finalists from a post-election national search. Martin pointed to Seattle's "bad track record" of ending up with three finalists and then "the best person drops out," leaving the city to settle for someone who is available, but not particularly well-suited.

Steinbrueck, who served on the public safety committee during part of his time as a city council member, said he is open to the idea of appointing a police chief from within the department and criticized recent campaign talk about firing Diaz as an improper way to treat a "dedicated public servant." (Burgess told a meeting of Crosscut editors in late March that he would replace Diaz and other top-level officials if elected.)

Burgess, a former police officer, held his ground, saying in an interview that recent problems suggest the department needs a leader from outside. Still, he thanked Chief Diaz for his service, saying, "The life of a police officer is rarely an easy one and John has served this city faithfully." Martin agreed that appointing from within would be "very problematic."

Several of the candidates had specific critiques of the department leadership. Steinbrueck criticized the SPD's lack of reform and “911-driven” police approach, which he says lost sight of working with neighborhoods. Some reforms, he admitted, have been identified, “But I don’t think any serious, long-term reforms have occurred.”

He also criticized McGinn's office as “running interference,” getting in the way of efforts to push the department forward. “[It] has been more defensive than responsive,” he said, in working with the Department of Justice to reform practices and policies on the use of force.

Harrell criticized city leadership, including the council, for not providing clear expectations to Diaz and his predecessors. He himself has been working on establishing measureable goals for the department and believes that the city needs to introduce metrics on crime rates, crime prevention and successful convictions.

A new chief, Harrell said, should be “willing to lead the charge” for new technological tools, be sensitive to civil liberties concerns and able to work comfortably in a board room or on the city's toughest streets. “[The next chief should be] a person who gives the public a sense of confidence in this department.”

Mayoral candidate Charlie Staadecker said in an email: “I'd like to thank Chief Diaz for serving the city of Seattle for over 30 years. His retirement allows us the opportunity for a needed fresh start under new leadership to work with the Mayor, the Department of Justice, the police force and the citizens of Seattle to set our public safety priorities.

Staadecker added, “I would like to ask Chief Diaz if he’d be willing to meet with me and the other candidates for Mayor in a group setting to conduct an exit interview. In the spirit of collaboration, I’d like to hear directly from him about how the Mayor’s office can most effectively work with the Seattle Police Department in the future.”

Update, 12:35 p.m. April 9: Mary Martin, running as a Socialist Workers Party candidate, said in an email:  "I call for the prosecution and jailing of cops that brutalize and kill working people.  Because of public protest over cases such as the killing of John T. Williams and the beating of Latino youth and countless other incidents of police brutality, pressure was brought to bear on the SPD to take some actions in the name of addressing these crimes. But for working people, simply changing the police chief does not end the function of police under capitalism which is to keep the working class in line."

James Bible, a leading non-political critic of the police department and president of the Seattle-King County NAACP, said he was “happy to see that there is an opportunity for real, true change.” But he said the group has seen what it believes is a “culture of cover-up, a culture of creating an illusion of change.” Asked about the appointment of Interim Chief Jim Pugel, he said, “We have to wait and see.” 

Seattle Police Officers Guild President Rich O'Neill said he agreed with Mayor Mike McGinn that the city should conduct a national search for the best available candidate.

Crosscut editorial intern Vanesha Manuturi contributed to this report.



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