Interim Seattle police chief tested in year of challenges
Interim Chief John Diaz, one of three finalists for the permanent job as Seattle's top cop, has been tasked with some of the department's toughest assignments in his 30-year tenure — and he's made plenty of unpopular decisions.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Experience: Interim Seattle chief of police, March 2009 to present; deputy chief of operations, 2006 to 2009; deputy chief of administration, 2001 to 2006; assistant chief, operations bureau, 2000 to 2001; captain, 1992 to 1999; lieutenant, 1990 to 1992; sergeant, 1985 to 1990; patrol officer, 1980 to 1985.
Education: Associate of arts, administration of justice, Skyline College, San Bruno, Calif.; Senior Management Institute for Police.
Family: Married to Seattle Narcotics Detective Linda Diaz; three children: sons, 13 and 11, and a daughter, 9.
Candidate profilesMayor Mike McGinn is expected to submit his police-chief choice to the City Council for confirmation next month. Profiles of the finalists are being published this week:
Wednesday: Rick Braziel, of Sacramento, Calif.
Thursday: Ronald Davis, of East Palo Alto, Calif.
Today: John Diaz, of Seattle
Read previous stories at
Juan Diaz died nine years ago, but the lessons he imparted — about community, hard work and always doing the right thing, no matter the cost — are constant touchstones for his son, Interim Seattle Police Chief John Diaz.
The elder Diaz, a steelworker-turned-bar owner, worked to improve the lot of fellow Latinos in the working-class San Francisco neighborhood where he raised his family. He would say things like, "It's not all about you, it's about the nation," and "You work until the job is done."
His words helped shape his son's leadership style, which is more quiet and thoughtful than flashy or dynamic:
"I can hear my dad's voice in my head. He'd say, 'You can learn a lot more by listening than talking,' " Diaz said this week. "I'm not the fire-and-brimstone leader. That's not me. As a leader, I believe you need to surround yourself with really smart people, define clear expectations and set a course."
Diaz, 52, named interim chief just over a year ago when former Chief Gil Kerlikowske left to become President Obama's drug czar, is one of three finalists for the permanent job as Seattle's top cop.
In his 30 years with the department, Diaz has been tasked with some of the department's toughest assignments — and he's made plenty of unpopular decisions.
Of his own reputation in disciplinary matters, Diaz recently told a room full of journalists: "In the department, some people believe I'm too harsh. I believe I'm firm and I'm fair."
In the 13 months Diaz has led the department, he's faced a career's worth of crises.
He fired an officer for lying and, after his decision was overturned by the city's Public Safety Civil Service Commission, took the rare step of filing an appeal in King County Superior Court.
Then there was the hunt for, and eventual capture of, a serial arsonist who terrorized the Greenwood area last summer and fall.
That was followed by the fatal shooting of Officer Tim Brenton and the wounding of his partner Halloween night, and the apprehension of the accused gunman, Christopher Monfort, by Seattle detectives on the day of Brenton's funeral.
A month later, Seattle police were drawn into the intense manhunt for Maurice Clemmons, who killed four Lakewood police officers in a Pierce County coffee shop. The manhunt ended Dec. 2 when a Seattle officer fatally shot Clemmons.
Two weeks ago, the heat on Diaz got turned way up: Days before his final interview with members of a police-chief search committee, video footage of a gang detective and a patrol officer kicking a Latino man and using ethnically inflammatory language surfaced.
Since then, Diaz has been both blasted and commended for his handling of an incident that's stirred tension between police and the city's minority communities.
Estela Ortega, executive director of El Central de la Raza, part of the new coalition formed in response to the April 17 incident, criticized what she said was "an insidious culture of tolerance" within the department in which officers and supervisors remain silent about colleagues' wrongdoing.
Despite this stinging indictment of the department, Ortega said she supports Diaz for chief: "He's the most qualified and the most experienced."
Diaz said he found the incident appalling and was adamant that his officers don't routinely abuse people of color.
At the time, Diaz said he would love to "speak from the heart," but wants to make sure there are no mistakes that could jeopardize an investigation into the incident or possible discipline decisions.
The Rev. Harriett Walden, founder and director of Mothers for Police Accountability, was a member of the police-chief search committee. She criticized Diaz's response to the incident.
"I think it should've been handled a little more swiftly," Walden said, questioning how soon Diaz learned of the incident before KIRO-TV first aired the video May 6. "I would've liked to see more leadership ... I'd like to see more outreach to the community."
Sgt. Rich O'Neill, president of the Seattle Police Officers' Guild (SPOG) and also a member of the search committee, said the department has "had one hell of a year" — in which time Diaz has proved his mettle.
"He has been tested under fire in the most horrendous year we can remember," O'Neill said, noting that Diaz received "wide support from a wide range of community groups" involved in selecting the three finalists for chief.
"There are pros and cons for every chief" selected for the mayor's consideration, but of Diaz, O'Neill said, "I don't think he's done wrong in his interim time. I think the city and this mayor need somebody who can hit the ground running."
Not pretentious or gregarious, Diaz is the kind of man who holds doors open for women and can slip into a room unnoticed.
His humor is displayed in flashes: He says that at age 19, "I joined the Army to see the world — and they sent me to Alabama."
A week after Diaz's military-police company was shipped to Fort Lewis, Diaz was guarding the base's isolated east gate "when the commander of the investigations unit came out to see me at 2 a.m."
Impressed by Diaz's Army test scores, the commander tapped Diaz for detective, enabling him to cut his teeth in criminal investigations before launching into civilian police work.
He insists that every success he's had is the result of teamwork, and acknowledges his share of mistakes.
For instance, Diaz, a captain of the SPD's gang unit in the mid-1990s, said he was involved in the 2002 decision to disband the team of detectives who'd made headway stemming gang violence in the city — only for the department to recreate the unit a few years later, after gang violence flared again.
But Diaz — known for immersing himself in details — is the guy former chiefs have often turned to when unglamorous, no-nonsense tasks must be performed:
In 1999, three months into a new assignment, Diaz was put in charge of the homicide unit.
His first day there, then-Chief Norm Stamper had Diaz relieve Detective Sonny Davis of his badge and gun after he was accused of stealing cash from a crime scene.
As an assistant chief to then-new Chief Kerlikowske, Diaz led a team of commanders in writing an internal report detailing how ill-prepared and ineffective police leaders were in handling the 2001 Mardi Gras riots in which one man was killed and 71 people were injured in Pioneer Square as police largely watched.
Also in 2001, Diaz became one of two deputy chiefs — positions Kerlikowske created early in his tenure.
He gave Diaz the job of balancing the department's then-$220 million budget after years of overruns, which Diaz did — but not without angering many in the department.
The police budget, now more than $240 million, has balanced every year since Diaz's overhaul, with the exception of last year, when the department ran slightly over budget due to large-scale investigations in tracking down Monfort and Clemmons, Diaz said.
Diaz represented Seattle brass in the prolonged, often-bitter contract talks between the city and the police guild that dragged on for nearly two years.
In June 2007, amid complaints that Kerlikowske didn't adequately punish two officers involved in the controversial arrest of an African-American drug dealer, then-Mayor Greg Nickels appointed an expert panel that recommended 29 changes to the department's police-accountability system.
In spring 2008, Diaz was involved in brokering a deal that ultimately saw the recommendations incorporated into a new contract that also gave Seattle officers their largest pay raise ever.
Hubert Locke, a University of Washington professor emeritus who has spent 30 years studying, teaching and serving on boards related to policing and criminal justice, has observed Diaz's rise in the department.
Locke co-chaired the Youth Safety Task Force formed after the Mardi Gras riots, and said the internal report produced by Diaz and others was an unprecedented acknowledgment of mistakes made by police commanders.
"He's an immensely quiet fellow," Locke said of Diaz. "He's a man of absolute integrity, and I always felt I could take his word ... because he calls the shots as he sees them. When he does speak, he follows through."
The year after Kerlikowske was named chief, Diaz — who was known nationally and was being courted by other departments — told The New York Times: "The politics of being police chief have become so insane no one wants the job."
The fact that Diaz and two other internal candidates — Deputy Chief Clark Kimerer and Assistant Chief Jim Pugel — applied for the chief's job this year reflects the "emerging rank of professional police leaders within the department," Locke said.
Diaz jokes that the politics involved in being chief "are still insane."
But he cares deeply — about the city, its residents, and its officers who "see things at times that are hard for the soul to see."
No matter what the mayor decides, Diaz wants to end his career in Seattle. "I could lead or I could serve," he said.
"I feel a sense of duty to do this. If you believe in an organization like I do and you're given the opportunity to lead it, you jump at that chance."
Seattle Times news researcher Miyoko Wolf and staff reporter Janet Tu contributed to this report, which includes information from Times archives.
Sara Jean Green: 206-515-5654 or seattletimes.com">firstname.lastname@example.org
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