By Paul Kiefer
Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell announced on Thursday that he plans to launch a national search for a permanent police chief in April, and publicly encouraged the interim chief, Adrian Diaz, to apply for the role. While Diaz is Harrell’s most obvious option to lead SPD permanently, Seattle’s city charter requires the mayor to run a competitive search process for a new police chief.
To comply with the charter, Harrell will need to choose the next permanent chief from a field of three finalists, and the city council will need to confirm Harrell’s pick.
A city council resolution, adopted in 2019 amid a contentious appointment process for the head of the Human Services Department, requires the mayor to keep the council in the loop during the process of appointing all department heads, including the police chief; it also states the council’s intent to consider stakeholder engagement, racial equity, and whether impacted groups were included in the selection process before confirming a nomination.
Diaz has been open about his desire to lead the department permanently since he replaced his predecessor, Carmen Best, in 2020. Former mayor Jenny Durkan’s decision not to begin the search for a new police chief during her final year in office gave Diaz more time to settle into his role, and the compounding aftershocks of citywide protests in 2020, a mass exodus of officers from the department, debates about SPD’s budget, and an uptick in violent crime gave Diaz visibility as soon as he took the job.
A month into his tenure, Diaz moved 100 officers from specialized units to a citywide response team intended to supplement patrol units in any precinct as needed; that team, called the Community Response Group, initially took charge of protest management for SPD. In March of 2021, he overturned the findings of a high-profile Office of Police Accountability investigation into SPD’s use of tear gas on Capitol Hill in 2020, shifting responsibility from the lieutenant who ordered the use of tear gas to an assistant chief. The decision spurred some criticism from accountability advocates and a lawsuit from the assistant chief, Steve Hirjak, whom Diaz demoted to captain.
During the Seattle City Council’s debate over how to adjust SPD’s budget to reflect its depleted ranks after more than a year of record-high attrition, Diaz was a vocal critic of a plan to cut funding for vacant positions from the department’s budget, at one point erroneously claiming that former council president Lorena González proposed eliminating 100 officers’ jobs. And as Harrell’s administration forged ahead with a plan to crack down on crime “hot spots” in Little Saigon and downtown Seattle, Diaz appeared beside the mayor at press conferences, commenting that the city “can’t arrest its way” out of the public safety and public health problems on display at the targeted “hot spots.”
For Harrell, hiring Diaz as the permanent chief would be consistent with his view—expressed in campaign speeches and at press events—that SPD, under Diaz, accepts that reform is necessary and is a cooperative partner in his plan to “revitalize” the downtown core. In a press release on Thursday, Harrell urged Diaz to apply to be permanent chief, commenting that he has “been pleased with Interim Chief Diaz’s approach and commitment to progress on public safety.”
SPD’s ongoing staffing shortage may also color the search for a new police chief. As the department tries to retain older, more experienced officers, Diaz’s relative popularity among the SPD rank-and-file could be an asset, while a shake-up in department leadership could be a liability. Though Diaz has fired more officers than Best did during her time as chief, including a dozen from the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild, he has mostly avoided rocking the boat on disciplinary issues; an audit by Seattle’s Office of the Inspector General for Public Safety last year found that when presented with a range of possible ways to discipline an officer for misconduct, Diaz most often chooses less severe options. His stalwart advocacy for hiring more officers has also been a boon for officer morale, as is the continuity he represents—Diaz has worked only for SPD, and he has led the department through a difficult transition period.
At the same time, Diaz has been relatively supportive, at least in principle, of scaling up Seattle’s civilian emergency response options, including SPD’s Community Service Officers and the Seattle Fire Department’s Health One program.
But some accountability problems that have persisted since Diaz took charge of SPD could mar his record, including ongoing problems with officers treating members of the public disrespectfully or unprofessionally: among the most common complaints to the Office of Police Accountability in the past year. Accountability advocates also question SPD’s role in the city’s renewed push to clear encampments, particularly downtown and in the International District. Meanwhile, the King County Department of Public Defense has criticized “Operation New Day,” an SPD initiative that has resulted in a wave of arrests for misdemeanor offenses like shoplifting. Diaz’s close relationship with Best—one of his primary mentors—may also raise eyebrows among some accountability advocates critical of Best for her protest response decisions in 2020.
Harrell’s office said Thursday that they plan to use an “independent third-party firm” to identify candidates for the position, and the office is also assembling a search committee to help narrow the list of candidates. The search committee will include members of the Community Police Commission and business representatives, among others.
Given that widespread condemnation and scrutiny of police leadership occurred in practically every major city in the country over the past two years, and given that SPD remains under federal oversight, interested and viable candidates from elsewhere may be hard to come by. And Diaz’s hometown advantage might dissuade outside candidates from applying.