Police Chief’s Reversal of Misconduct Finding Reveals Flaws In Accountability System, Advocates Say

An SPD cruiser carrying Lt. John Brooks (center) orders protesters to disperse from a Capitol Hill intersection in October 2020.

By Paul Kiefer

During a meeting of Seattle’s Community Police Commission on Wednesday, police oversight officials expressed concerns about Interim Seattle Police Chief Adrian Diaz’s decision to overturn an Office of Police Accountability misconduct finding against SPD lieutenant John Brooks, who directed officers to use tear gas, blast balls and pepper spray to clear a mostly peaceful crowd of protesters from the area near SPD’s East Precinct on June 1, 2020.

During a discussion of the case between the commission and Office of Police Accountability (OPA) Director Andrew Myerberg, CPC co-chair Erin Goodman said Diaz’s ability to unilaterally reverse the findings of a misconduct investigation reveal a fundamental flaw in Seattle’s police oversight system. “It makes us all question the strength of the accountability system as a whole,” she said.

Myerberg’s office ruled that Brooks was responsible for directing officers to use crowd-control weapons against protesters despite inadequate evidence of a threat. Diaz disagreed with Myerberg’s decision, and in a letter to Mayor Jenny Durkan and City Council President Lorena González announcing his decision last week, he argued that it’s unfair to judge the decisions of the officers at the protest in hindsight, and that someone at a “higher level of command authority” was responsible for SPD’s missteps.

Last Thursday, Diaz wrote a post following up on his letter on the department’s blog, announcing that he would hold someone accountable for the incident, and that “additional information has surfaced which was not included in the OPA investigation.”

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But without any clarity about who Diaz will discipline or when he will discipline them, CPC members remain concerned that his decision to absolve Brooks means that no one will face consequences for tear-gassing peaceful protesters. “There were a lot of people who were harmed that day,” said Reverend Harriet Walden, a longtime CPC commissioner, during the meeting on Wednesday. “It makes it difficult for those of us who try to work collaboratively with SPD.”

In fact, Diaz’s reference to “additional information” about SPD’s protest response on June 1 only added to the CPC’s concerns. “Did you get the sense that SPD withheld information from your office during your investigation?” Goodman asked Myerberg during the meeting.

“As far as we know, there is no new information,” Myerberg responded. Based on interviews with the officers at the scene on June 1, including Brooks, Myerberg said that all evidence indicated Brooks ordered officers to clear the crowd. “The new information may be the chief thinking that, given his view of the chain of command, that he wants to hold an assistant chief responsible,” Myerberg speculated.

The person most likely to fill that role is Assistant Chief Steve Hirjak, who was Brooks’ commander on June 1. Diaz did not mention Hirjak by name in his post. 

When the OPA first launched its investigation into the June 1 incident, investigators interviewed Hirjak and determined that he had devolved responsibility for tactical decision-making to Brooks. As an assistant chief, Hirjak is not a member of a police union, so if Diaz deemed him responsible for the errors on June 1, the chief could demote him without an investigation.

In a conversation with PubliCola last week, Diaz said that he was weighing his options for following up on his decision to overturn the OPA’s findings against Brooks.

Now that he has assured the public he will hold someone accountable for SPD’s use of excessive force, Diaz may feel the need to make a decision soon. Disciplining Hirjak may be Diaz’s fastest option, because it would not require an investigation. Alternately, Diaz could ask the OPA to search for new information about the incident—Seattle’s 2017 police accountability ordinance doesn’t allow the chief to open investigations on his own.

Meanwhile, some members of the CPC, including Goodman, showed interest on Wednesday in exploring how to eliminate the police chief’s authority to overturn OPA findings. Myerberg advised that the CPC could advocate for changes to the chief’s duties by working with the city council to amend the city charter. “Should the chief be the final decision-maker?” he asked. “In theory, it’s all up for negotiation.”

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