SPD Officer Demoted for Protest Response Claims Discriminatory Treatment

Former Assistant Chief Steve Hirjak

By Paul Kiefer

The Seattle Police Department commander demoted two months ago for his role in the department’s handling of a protest last June filed a discrimination and retaliation claim against the city on Thursday.

Captain Steve Hirjak, whom Interim Seattle Police Chief Adrian Diaz demoted from Assistant Chief after deeming him responsible for SPD’s widely criticized use of tear gas and blast balls against protesters on Capitol Hill on June 1, 2020, argued through his attorney that Diaz unfairly shifted blame for the incident away from Lieutenant John Brooks, who was the on-site commander during the protest.

In a letter accompanying the claim, Hirjak’s attorney criticized Diaz’s decision to demote Hirjak instead of Brooks, pointing to findings by the Office of Police Accountability (OPA) that held Brooks responsible for violating SPD policy on June 1. When Diaz unexpectedly diverged from the OPA’s findings in May, he drew criticism from members of the Community Police Commission and city council member Lisa Herbold, who questioned what evidence the chief had to hold Hirjak responsible for the protest response; Hirjak included a letter from Herbold to Diaz in his claim.

In a subsequent letter to Herbold, Diaz wrote he “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.” Hirjak’s demotion, he added, was “a reflection of my lack of confidence in [Hirjak’s] ability to do so.”

But in his claim, Hirjak contends that Diaz—and his predecessor, former SPD Chief Carmen Best—treated him unfairly because of his race (Hirjak is Korean-American) while allowing white commanders who made mistakes during the department’s protest response to avoid accountability or rise in the ranks. Hirjak became SPD’s first Asian-American assistant chief in 2018.

His attorney’s letter points out errors by an array of Hirjak’s colleagues, including the decision by Assistant Chief Thomas Mahaffey to abandon the department’s East Precinct without informing Best, as well as Assistant Chief Deanna Nollette’s “failure… to gather or understand relevant intelligence” ahead of the protests, which he cited as a reason for SPD’s inadequate preparations for large-scale demonstrations. Neither Mahaffey nor Nollette faced discipline.

The letter also notes that both Brooks—who was the subject of 14 misconduct investigations in 2020—and Bryan Grenon, who was the captain above Brooks on June 1, both received promotions within the past year: Brooks is now the acting captain of a unit that leads SPD’s protest responses, and Grenon replaced Hirjak as assistant chief.

According to his attorney, the demotion has done serious damage to Hirjak’s reputation and career opportunities, as did the two months he spent without a unit assignment after his promotion. While Diaz recently appointed Hirjak to lead the Special Victims Crimes section, which includes the domestic violence and elder crimes units, Hirjak’s attorney argued that his new assignment “lacks visibility or significant contact with outside agencies and only serves to perpetuate the damage associated with his demotion.”

Meanwhile, his attorney added, “the more prominent position of Captain with the Force Review Unit remains open and Mr. Hirjak, who helped create the unit, is the most qualified person for the job.”

The city has until early August to agree to a mediation before Hirjak can file a lawsuit.