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Originally published Monday, April 8, 2013 at 9:14 PM

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Diaz in hot seat from Day One

Whether they supported Seattle Police Chief John Diaz or opposed him, no one Monday seemed surprised by his upcoming departure.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Some were appreciative of the work he’s done under difficult circumstances. Others said he was ineffectual and are glad to see him go.

But no one seemed shocked Monday by Seattle Police Chief John Diaz’s announcement that he was retiring after less than four years on the job.

Diaz, who was appointed interim chief in May 2009 and confirmed in August 2010, has been in the hot seat since practically his first day.

His tenure seemed to be measured in bad news and negative headlines: A deaf woodcarver killed by an officer; a Department of Justice (DOJ) review finding evidence of biased policing; public outrage over the department’s intended use of aerial drones.

Jennifer Shaw, the deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, concedes that some of the pressure and scrutiny on Diaz and the Seattle Police Department (SPD) was instigated by the ACLU.

A 2010 letter from her organization to the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division, signed by 34 community and civil-rights group, was a key impetus for the federal investigation into the SPD. That investigation led to the DOJ’s findings that Seattle police officers routinely engaged in excessive force and showed evidence of biased policing.

Shaw said the issues facing the department are the result of “a failure in leadership” and said a new chief will provide an opportunity for change and a chance to re-engage marginalized communities.

Sgt. Rich O’Neill, president of the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild, agrees Diaz has “been in the hot seat for a long time.”

He said while he and Diaz have disagreed and engaged in “real arguments” at times, the discussions were always respectful.

O’Neill praised Diaz for his handling of the fatal shooting of Officer Timothy Brenton in October 2009, recalling that when Diaz addressed officers shortly after the slaying he promised the killer would be caught. Days later, a suspect was arrested and is now awaiting trial.

O’Neill sidestepped questions about the impending search for a new chief and whether Diaz’s replacement should come from within the department.

He said he worried that some candidates might “shy away” from the job because of the federal oversight, but he said the city’s goal should be to attract the best person for the job.

James Bible, president of the Seattle-King County NAACP, who had previously opposed Diaz’s appointment and urged his removal, said flatly that it was time for Diaz to step down.

He said the chief was part of a “culture of indifference” and institutional problems that have long haunted the department.

“This represents an opportunity for real institutional change and a chance to develop the sort of department we can all be proud of,” Bible said. “This could usher in a new era.”

City Attorney Pete Holmes commended Diaz’s work, which he said has helped the department prepare for the reforms mandated by the city’s settlement agreement with the DOJ.

“He richly deserves some R&R before pursuing the next chapter in his life,” Holmes wrote in a statement. “I hope he will remain involved in police reform efforts throughout the country.”

Rick Williams, whose brother, woodcarver John T. Williams, was fatally shot by Seattle police Officer Ian Birk in August 2010 — one of the incidents that prompted the DOJ investigation — said Diaz had never been the right person for the job.

“He seems like a nice guy, but I was kind of hurt by his pretty words. A leader needs to lead by example ... and I didn’t see that with John Diaz,” Williams said.

“In my mind and heart and soul, I was disgusted by how John Diaz handled it,” he said of the aftermath of his brother’s death. “I had several meetings with him and my lawyers ... He never looked at me in the eye, and I found it disgusting that he was sidestepping instead of being direct.”

Nonetheless, Williams said that he’s seen a change in the department over the past six months, and he now believes young patrol officers are treating the homeless and people on the streets with more respect than they once did.

Christine Clarridge can be reached at cclarridge@seattletimes.com or 206-464-8983.

Seattle Times staff reporters Sara Jean Green, Steve Miletich and Mike Carter contributed to this report.

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