Chief nominee Diaz offers no big changes; some in black community dissatisfied
Though he's expected to win approval, council members see a "lack of creativity" and some in the black community object to more of the status quo.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Upcoming meetings and more information
Wed., July 28: 5 p.m., Council Chambers, Public Safety and Education Committee public hearing
Wed., Aug. 4: 9:30 a.m. in Council Chambers, Public Safety and Education Committee meeting and vote
Wed., Aug. 9 or 16 2 p.m. in Council Chambers, full council vote
More information: Diaz's résumé and background, and his written responses to questions from the City Council can be found at http://seattle.gov/council/burgess/
As part of the Seattle City Council's confirmation process, Interim Police Chief John Diaz was asked whether he would change anything if he gets the top job.
His response: "I am the same person now that I have been during my 30-year career in SPD, so the short answer is no."
For those who don't trust the police department, that's a big problem, said James Bible, president of the local NAACP branch.
As he moves toward a confirmation vote next month by the City Council, Diaz faces a backlash from some African Americans who say he has failed to fix the strained relations between police and Seattle's black community.
At Wednesday's confirmation hearing, critics suggested the City Council should start over and find a different candidate to lead the department.
"I look at Chief Diaz and I look at a man whose résumé looks good," said Charles Oliver, regional president for Blacks in Government. "He just hasn't shown the leadership for a leader that we would like."
During the hour-and-a-half of questioning, council members also pressed Diaz on a variety of topics, from street crime, to police staffing, and the use of cameras and other technology.
After a lengthy selection process, Diaz was selected June 24 by Mayor Mike McGinn. While the council is expected to approve Diaz's appointment, members see the confirmation process as a chance to press him for stronger commitments to their priorities.
Given his significant tenure in the department, Diaz comes with both experience and baggage. During Wednesday's question-and-answer session, he spoke about his contentious relationship with public defenders and his struggle over the years to manage public perception amid officer-misconduct charges.
"We have to continue to go back to the idea of, can we make (each) interaction as positive as possible," he said. "We have an ability every time we stop somebody to build peace."
During the meeting, Councilmember Bruce Harrell pressed Diaz more than once about what changes he would make.
"Are you cooking up something new?" he asked him. "I am hoping for a leader that says, 'OK, we're going to try something a little different.' "
Diaz said there is no one thing to fix Seattle's problems. He reiterated what he said in his written remarks — stressing programs already under way and aligning police work with "community values and expectations."
Harrell said after the meeting that, although he expects Diaz to be confirmed by the council, he thinks his answer "seems to suggest a lack of creativity."
A community meeting with Diaz last Thursday grew heated because of concerns Diaz hasn't balanced civil rights with enforcement, said Bible, of the local National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) branch.
"The whole community is in an uproar," Bible said.
That anger bubbled to the surface Wednesday during public testimony.
"The Seattle Police Department has a history of injustices, and the black community has been affected deeply by these injustices," said Milford Mohammad at Wednesday's confirmation meeting.
At Thursday night's meeting, Mohammad said he was disappointed in Diaz's answer to questions about a recent incident where a police officer punched a teenage jaywalking suspect.
"For the chief to comment Thursday night that the wheels of justice turn slowly, I understand there's an investigation going on, but it seems like the wheels of injustice have parked on the black community," Mohammad said. "We cannot continue to have a relationship that looks like blacks here, whites here."
Diaz declined to respond to the public comments after the meeting.
Harrell was at Thursday's meeting and said the interim chief didn't respond well to the public criticism.
"His answers were long-winded and vague, and by his own admission, he can improve there," Harrell said. "It's hard getting the substance when you have that kind of style. They were not satisfied that there would be any significant change under his leadership."
Harrell said Diaz's only answer seems to be to do more "community outreach."
"That's the same strategy we've been doing for, what? Ten, 15 years," he said.
James Kelly, the president and CEO of the local Urban League, said he has worked closely with Diaz on gang violence and other issues. But he and Diaz have never had lunch or coffee, he said.
"It's not community outreach. It's relationship," Kelly said. "He needs to establish a relationship with people."
Councilmember Tim Burgess, the chair of the council's Public Safety and Education Committee, began the confirmation hearing by holding up a copy of Wednesday's Seattle Times and asking Diaz about a front-page photograph of a late-night Belltown brawl.
"This kind of behavior, this kind of street crime and disorder is what really gnaws at people," Burgess said, asking the interim chief to talk about how he would address it.
Diaz talked about redeploying officers to help manage the sometimes rowdy bar-closing crowd. But he pointed out that he is limited by his budget and the fact that there's not one single thing that will fix the problem.
Council members also wanted to hear Diaz's take on a dispute between the mayor and council on whether to hire 20 new officers next year, as planned under the city's Neighborhood Policing Plan.
Diaz said the city should focus on other successes of the neighborhood plan — such as improved response time and officers spending more time doing proactive work — and not get hung up on hiring numbers.
Asked about a perception that there is a problematic culture in the department, driven in part by two recent videotaped incidents of officers using force, Diaz talked about the need for officer accountability and the responsibility that comes with being in law enforcement.
In the end, he said, "It's always going to be an issue, because we're dealing with humans."
Emily Heffter: 206-464-8246 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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