Seattle's Police Chief rumble: Jim Pugel is the new John Diaz

Seattle Police Chief John Diaz stepped down Monday, leaving questions about what happened and what is next.
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Media at Seattle Police Chief John Diaz's press conference about his retirement

Seattle Police Chief John Diaz stepped down Monday, leaving questions about what happened and what is next.

Seattle Police Department Chief John Diaz announced today that he's stepping down after a tumultuous 3-year run as Chief and a 33-year career with the SPD. Diaz, who made the announcement of his resignation alongside Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn and new Interim Chief Jim Pugel this morning, has faced heavy criticism over his handling of problems with police brutality in the force.

"Must be something important we're talking about today, huh?" Diaz joked as he approached the podium in a room packed with local media.

Pugel, who currently serves as Assistant Chief and works with the Criminal Investigations Bureau, will be phased in as the Interim Chief of Police over the next 30-45 days, according to Diaz. The permanent Police Chief, McGinn said, won't be appointed until well after the November mayoral elections. 

Pugel grew up in Seattle and was a political science student at the UW. He has been the lead on the SPD's innovative Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program, which provides low-level non-violent drug offenders with treatment options rather than jail. Seattle City Council member and public safety chair Bruce Harrell praised him as "sharp" and noted he was a graduate of a highly-regarded FBI training program.

When asked about police communications with the community, Pugel said he will strive to be direct and open. "A lot of the things that John or any other police chief or mayor has to talk about is sometimes confidential," he said. "It's a struggle to be as open as possible with the media. ... I've always been open and honest and if I can tell you something, I'll tell you."

Though Diaz and McGinn praised Pugel as well, the language McGinn used raised questions about the nature of Pugel's relationship with him and Diaz: "I've come to appreciate his directness, honesty and integrity," said the mayor, an indication that their relationship may not have always been that way. Of Diaz, Pugel said: "He and I have gotten in some serious arguments about how to do stuff."

Amid both praise and questioning around his departure, Diaz repeatedly said his retirement was not a reaction to problems between the Department of Justice and the police department. Nor, he said, did it have to do with a recently released and quite critical evaluation of the department's response to last spring's downtown May Day riots.

Instead, the chief touted SPD's relative stability after a long history of problems. Diaz's career has been marked, both he and McGinn asserted, by capable responses to tough situations: the brutal murder and rape of a woman in South Park, the assassination of officer Tim Brenton, a string of arsons in Greenwood, the spate of murders and gun violence that rattled the city in the first half of 2012 and the DOJ's ruling that the Seattle police department had engaged in biased policing and excessive use of force last summer.

Diaz told the crowd assembled for a press conference that he was leaving only after having responded to and dealing with these issues. "Our reform efforts are in place, our structure is in place," he said, referring to the SPD reform plan recently approved by a judge.

In what could be described as an effort to blunt media criticism of Diaz's career, McGinn went to great lengths to tout the SPD's successful response to each of these incidents, and commended Diaz for his commitment to local community-building, crime reduction and successful pushes toward innovation in police training and on-the-ground work.

"You may not know this, but Chief Diaz is kind of a liberal," he said with an impish smile. Diaz, whose family is from Mexico, doesn't agree with all of our immigration policies, he said. Nor does he come from a cultural constituency that necessarily appreciates the role of American police officers.

"Most of my family still lives in Mexico," Diaz explained. "They have different opinions about law enforcement." Still, Diaz says he's managed to change their minds on the subject.

That might be surprising to those who haven't yet forgotten the behavior of Seattle detective, Shandy Cobane. Cobane was caught on video stomping on a Latino man and saying, "I'm going to beat the f***ing Mexican piss out of you, homey. You feel me?" Diaz decided did not to fire Cobane.  

In some ways, Diaz seemed resigned to the mark on his legacy that struggles within the department would leave. "If you're worried about whether you're going to get a fair shake or not, then you probably shouldn't be part of it," he said in response to questions of bad public perception. Like a raft of other retiring male leaders before him, Diaz attributed his decision in part to pleasing his wife, Linda. "She should be up for sainthood," he remarked. Though, if he ever turns up dead, he wryly added, "She's the primary suspect."

But he held throughout to the assertion that he had reached the right time to retire: "I had planned to retire — or my wife had — one way or the other sometime this year."

Pugel, however, made one statement that seemed to hint at some sort of rapid acceleration of that decision recently. "This came about pretty quickly," he said of his own appointment. 


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About the Authors & Contributors

Berit Anderson

Berit Anderson

Berit Anderson was Managing Editor at Crosscut, following tech, culture, media and politics. She founded Crosscut's Community Idea Lab. Previously community manager of the Tribune Company’s Seattle blogging network, her work has also appeared in YES! Magazine and on the Huffington Post, Geekwire, and KBCS 91.3 radio. She served as Communications Director at Strategic News Service, a weekly newsletter that predicts global trends in tech and economics, and Future in Review, an annual tech conference which gathers C-level executives to solve global problems. Her weaknesses include outdoor adventure, bananas with peanut butter and big fluffy dogs.