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Originally published Saturday, June 26, 2010 at 7:10 PM

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John Diaz quietly sets out to win over City Council, residents, Police Department

John Diaz — known for his quiet, thoughtful leadership style — may not like talking about work when he's at home, but he's acutely aware of the work cut out for him in Seattle. Though he's won over McGinn, Diaz, 53, still must convince the City Council he's the right guy for the job. And he has to prove to the community he can keep streets safe, ease frayed race relations, and hold his officers to high standards, disciplining even firing them if they fall short.

Seattle Times staff reporter

John Diaz

Age: 53

Law-enforcement career: 30 years

Wife: Detective Linda Diaz

Children:

Two sons, ages 13 and 11;

one daughter, age 10

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Police Chief John Diaz placed two cups on the table: decaf for himself, a latte for a Seattle narcotics detective.

The detective, a 23-year veteran of the Seattle force, knew just how much cream to pour into the chief's mug.

"Thanks, sweetie," Diaz said. "You know, she never does this for me at home."

A day after Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn named him as his pick for police chief, Diaz met with his wife at a South Lake Union coffee shop.

"At home, he's just the husband and dad completely. There's no crossover whatsoever. We rarely even talk about work," Detective Linda Diaz, 46, said Friday.

John Diaz — known for his quiet, thoughtful leadership style — may not like talking about work when he's home with his three kids and assorted animals on 5 acres near Issaquah, but he's acutely aware of the work cut out for him in Seattle.

Though he's won over McGinn, now Diaz, 53, must convince the City Council he's the right guy for the job. And he has to prove to the community he can keep streets safe, ease frayed race relations, and hold his officers to high standards, disciplining or even firing them if they fall short.

"It's not like one day the 'interim hat' goes off, and it's a whole new day. You'll continually see changes in how we provide services," said Diaz, who joined the department at 22 and rose through the ranks over a 30-year career.

Politics of policing

Councilmember Tim Burgess plans to press Diaz hard in the upcoming confirmation process, which will include at least one public hearing. Burgess is a former cop who chairs the council's Public Safety and Education Committee and has clashed with the mayor over policing. The council is likely to confirm Diaz by mid-August.

But the council wants more say in overseeing the department and members are looking to pass legislation outlining "a series of council expectations for the chief," Burgess said.

With a power struggle already in play, Diaz is the likely go-to guy on policing disputes.

Burgess already has said he will ask Diaz to create a strategy to address "street disorder," including aggressive panhandling. In April, McGinn vetoed an anti-aggressive panhandling measure that Burgess authored and Diaz supported.

Whether a new plan comes from the mayor or the police chief, it doesn't matter, Burgess said.

The police department's budget is another hot-button issue: The city had committed to hiring 105 new officers over five years as part of its Neighborhood Policing Plan. But McGinn recently told the council he won't hire 20 officers next year or so long as the city faces budget shortfalls.

Council President Richard Conlin said he wants Diaz to explain how to keep neighborhood policing going without more cops. If Diaz doesn't have a good answer, Conlin said, the council will reinstate the funding McGinn cut.

Asked to respond, McGinn said: "The chief's job is to run the department, under the mayor's direction. The council's job is oversight, and we have a shared role on setting the budget. I'm confident we will all work together in our respective roles."

For his part, Diaz is not interested in playing politics: "If either side wanted somebody just to carry the position, they've got the wrong guy. They're getting somebody who started out as a beat cop. I've spent my entire life doing this work and... I have a long history of saying what I think is the right thing to do."

Councilmember Nick Licata said he worries Diaz is too close to the Seattle Police Officers' Guild and may "bend over backward" to appease the union, which backed Diaz for chief. Licata said he wants to know how Diaz plans to handle guild contract negotiations and deal with discipline matters.

"I really want a police chief who recognizes that they have to use the hammer from time to time to get respect, particularly from the guild," Licata said.

Guild president Sgt. Rich O'Neill says he's banged heads with Diaz plenty: "I haven't agreed with every decision he's made, but I believe he always tries to make the right call for the right reason."

But Diaz isn't the kind of chief to easily bow to anyone — at City Hall or within the department, O'Neill said. "I really don't think he sticks his finger in the air to see which way the wind is blowing."

Focus on public safety

McGinn's decision to pick him as chief is a huge "confidence booster," said Diaz, who would become the first minority chief and the first to rise through the ranks in more than 30 years.

Shedding the "interim chief" label, Diaz said, gives him the freedom to push ahead on three broad priorities that are in the works. "Crime reduction, fear reduction and the building of community," Diaz said. "They all have to work together, and we have strategies for each part."

Diaz said the Neighborhood Policing Plan, despite the problems with the budget, is still happening. The department is working to rebalance officer work loads so 911 response times are more even across the city.

The Late Night Policing Initiative started this weekend. More cops are on duty until 4 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays through the summer to help clear crowds after they spill out of clubs and bars.

Despite Seattle's low crime rate, Diaz said, there are parts of the city where people don't feel safe. The department is trying to quantify people's perceptions of safety through an ambitious survey that divides the city into 17 neighborhoods. The goal is to "customize" policing by area, "because one size does not fit all."

"If you don't feel safe, you aren't safe," Diaz said.

Aiding race relations

For police, building community trust is a work in progress, Diaz said.

Because of community tips, Seattle police solve far more cases than departments nationally, according to Diaz.

Even after a crisis — for example the police shooting 12 years ago of David Walker, a mentally ill black man — the department took advice from the African-American community that led to creation of a crisis-intervention team, Diaz said. Such shootings also led to the department's use of Tasers as a less lethal alternative, Diaz said.

The department will continue reaching out to Seattle's communities of color in the wake of two recent incidents involving officers who kicked and stomped a prone Latino man and another who punched a black teenager involved in a jaywalking incident, Diaz said.

"The high-profile incidents we've had will be his biggest external challenge," said Hubert Locke, UW professor emeritus who has studied criminal-justice issues for 30 years.

"A lot of people in the community are likely wary of his appointment because of those incidents. Those incidents are unfortunately a reality of modern policing. I'm sure this won't be the last unpleasant occurrence the chief has to deal with," Locke said.

As an assistant chief, Diaz led the first police study on racial profiling in the state. As a cop and a son of Latino immigrants, he said, he knows "race is one of those issues we haven't turned the corner on in this country."

Racial disparities abound, "and the most visible part of government is the police department," Diaz said. "We're at the tip of the spear ... we can help improve race relations, or we can make them worse."

Officers already are being trained about racial profiling and de-escalation techniques like "verbal judo," he said, but it takes time to train everybody.

"Firm" disciplinarian

Every year, Seattle cops answer about 200,000 calls for service. They make 100,000 traffic stops and 180,000 more "on-view stops," meaning they see something suspicious and stop to investigate.

"People think highly of the department, but all that goes away when you have a stop that doesn't go right," Diaz said. The vast majority go right, but "what we end up discussing are the ones that go bad."

When his officers make mistakes, Diaz considers himself a "firm and fair" disciplinarian.

He says the department's police-accountability system is a "unique hybrid," with a civilian-led Office of Professional Accountability that investigates misconduct and makes discipline recommendations. That process also is audited and reviewed by civilians.

The chief makes the ultimate call to uphold, stiffen, reverse or reduce recommended discipline — and can exonerate officers or decide there isn't enough evidence to prove misconduct. Officers can appeal discipline decisions, which are subject to reversal or modification by state arbitrators or the city's Public Safety Civil Service Commission.

Former Chief Gil Kerlikowske, now drug czar in the Obama administration, came under fire for reversing or watering down conclusions of internal investigators — and he said one of his most important considerations was whether a discipline decision would withstand appeal.

In his stint as interim chief, Diaz has shown a willingness to take a hard line on discipline. Last year, he fired Officer Eric Werner for dishonesty. After the civil-service commission reinstated Werner and reduced his discipline to 30 unpaid days, Diaz made a rare push to appeal the case in King County Superior Court.

Earlier this month, a judge overturned the commission and sent the case back for commissioners to decide if Werner's firing was appropriate.

"It wasn't a popular decision, but it sent the right message ... If you lie about a material fact, you will be terminated," Diaz said.

"They have the right to use the system, and I have the same right," he said of officers facing discipline. "Sometimes I've won, and sometimes I've lost. Sometimes it's cumbersome, and I don't like how long it takes. But we use the system."

Shying from limelight

Sitting with his wife at the South Lake Union coffee shop, Diaz describes himself as a workaholic who, since being promoted to captain in 1993, has been on call 24/7.

He's also an insomniac who is a voracious reader of nonfiction, especially history and economics, and takes so little time off that some of his earned vacation time expires every year.

He hates the limelight and public speaking — something he promised last week to get better at. "Am I going to be a media darling? I'm 53 years old; that's not going to happen," said Diaz, who still carries the same Smith & Wesson revolver he was issued when he joined the department in 1981.

His shyness can be traced back to old insecurities from childhood, when he started school in the Bay Area knowing little English and was sent to speech-therapy classes he jokingly referred to as "Mexican detention."

Diaz said his escape from the pressures of police work is the house and new barn on a wooded parcel that's big enough for his two sons, 13 and 11, and his 10-year-old daughter, who rides horses and raises chickens.

"I've always been proud of John," Linda Diaz said, though she joked "people always say they like John better after they've met me."

As for her husband taking on the tough job as police chief, she said: "The wife part of me would've wanted him to retire, take out the garbage and do some yard work.

"But the law-enforcement part of me swelled with pride" to see the mayor pick an internal candidate for chief, she said. "It's just such a big deal."

Seattle Times staff reporters Emily Heffter and Steve Miletich contributed to this report.

Sara Jean Green: 206-515-5654 or sgreen@seattletimes.com

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