By Paul Kiefer
On Wednesday morning, Interim Seattle Police Chief Adrian Diaz announced in a letter to Seattle City Councilmember Lisa Herbold that he has demoted Assistant Chief Steve Hirjak for his role in the Seattle Police Department’s response to the first weekend of city-wide protests in the summer of 2020.
Diaz’s decision to demote Hirjak came two weeks after he overturned the findings an Office of Police Accountability (OPA) investigation that held a well-known lieutenant—John Brooks, a veteran officer who has lead SPD’s protest response unit since September—responsible for directing officers to use tear gas, blast balls and pepper spray against mostly peaceful protesters near the East Precinct on June 1.
At the time, Diaz argued that Brooks should not face discipline for decisions made by his superiors in the department; Diaz also claimed in a blog post on May 13 that “additional information has surfaced which was not included in the OPA investigation” that cleared Brooks of responsibility for using excessive force against protesters.
However, the chief assured fellow city leaders and the public that he would discipline someone—likely a member of his department’s command staff—for the June 1 debacle. “I am committed to full accountability and transparency for all of our actions, but I am also committed to ensuring that I reach every decision correctly and fairly,” he wrote.
During a meeting of the Community Police Commission the following week, OPA Director Andrew Myerberg questioned Diaz’s claim to have uncovered new information about SPD’s response to the June 1 protest. “As far as we know, there is no new information,” Myerberg said to the CPC commissioners. “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.”
Hirjak, who was Brooks’ commander on June 1, was the most obvious choice, though OPA investigators who interviewed the assistant chief had previously determined that he did not directly order officers to disperse the crowd. As an assistant chief, Hirjak was not a member of a union, which allowed Diaz to demote him without an investigation or a legal challenge.
In his letter to Herbold on Wednesday, Diaz walked back his claims about “additional information” that could implicate Hirjak. “There was (and is) no separate investigation and no information that [the] OPA did not have access to,” he wrote. Instead, Diaz wrote that he based his decision on a broader review of command failures between May 29 and June 1, 2020, when large-scale protests began in the wake of the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis Police officers; Hirjak was the commander responsible for SPD’s protest response that weekend.
“My decision is based on concerns and observations regarding planning, logistics, communications, decision-making, and staffing analyses that in my view laid the groundwork for the escalation of tensions that followed,” Diaz wrote on Wednesday. ” undamentally, I must have confidence that each and every member of this department’s sworn Command Staff… be able to step into an incident command position as circumstances may require. This demotion is a reflection of my lack of confidence in [Hirjak’s] ability to do so.”
Per city code, Hirjak will return to his previous rank of captain within SPD.