Seattle police chief to retire from troubled department
SEATTLE — Seattle Police Chief John Diaz said Monday he was retiring, leaving a department rocked by a federal investigation into excessive force and criticized for ill-planned responses to tumultuous May Day protests last year.
Diaz, 55, said he was leaving as the department had achieved an 11% reduction in major crime over the last four years and made “significant progress” in a reform plan developed with the Justice Department to address findings that officers too often resorted to unnecessary beatings and shootings.
“I won’t stand here and say that every decision was right, but what I will say is that I tried to make every decision based on what I believed was right. And I leave here pretty proud of my career,” Diaz, a 30-year veteran and the department’s first minority chief, told reporters as he announced his retirement with Mayor Mike McGinn.
“Is there ever a perfect time? No. But it was time for me to go.”
The latest setback for the department was a report made public last week from former Los Angeles Deputy Police Chief Michael Hillman, who found that significant shortfalls in leadership led to a lack of crowd control and widespread property damage during turbulent May Day protests last year in the city’s downtown.
In one especially embarrassing incident, officers had to rescue Assistant Police Chief Mike Sanford after he rushed alone in shirtsleeves into a crowd of protesters and tried to make an arrest, only to be knocked down.
Police responded admirably but the event was marred by poor communication and a widespread perception by officers on the street that no one was directing them, Hillman found.
Many officers told Hillman they were worried about policing too aggressively because of the Justice Department’s excessive force findings. They expressed fear that they were “under a microscope.” Department leaders had emphasized in advance of the protests that they were to take a “hands off” approach, identifying and protecting “critical facilities” with no use of pepper spray except in self-defense.
But Hillman said the incident commander, who was on leave in the days leading up to May Day, wasn’t actively engaged in planning for the protests and did not ensure there was adequate staffing. There was no fixed incident command site, no supervisory pre-planning meeting and no one scheduled to work early enough to establish a strong police presence from the start.
Officers said commanders gave many orders by cellphone instead of radio — meaning line officers often didn’t hear them and were confused about what to do.
“Who is in charge of the Seattle Police Department?” the Seattle Times asked in an editorial after the report’s release.
Diaz said he had long ago decided to retire this year. McGinn credited the chief with a number of accomplishments, including the department’s own reform initiatives, overtime patrols to reduce gun violence and an initiative to deploy a full-time mental health professional to perform street assessments and direct citizens into treatment when necessary.
“It is unquestionably a strong record in reducing crime, innovation and advancing the cause of reform and accountability,” the mayor said.
Assistant Chief Jim Pugel will act as interim chief after Diaz’s departure at the end of May until a permanent replacement is hired, officials said.
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