New interim SPD Chief ready to lead with focus on trust building
Whether it’s building trust with the community or with Seattle officers who feel alone and unsupported on the streets, new interim Seattle Police Chief Adrian Diaz is ready for the challenge.
“It’s been a challenging time,” Diaz said. “Obviously, we’re dealing with a variety of different things from the COVID pandemic, talks about defunding, and we have discussions about race and policing, so we’re trying to figure out what we need to do to move this department forward to having those discussions with community to really what reimagine what policing looks like.”
The Seattle Police Department had nearly completed a two-year sustainment period that would have finally seen it out from underneath a years-long federal consent decree on police reform that made the department a national model when George Floyd was murdered by police in Minneapolis, sparking nationwide protests that have changed everything.
The movements range from Black Lives Matter to calls for police reform, defunding, or even abolishing police, or all of the above, and have led to intense scrutiny and criticism of police not just in Minneapolis, but across the country with Seattle right in the middle of it.
“I always tell people, I didn’t ask for this job when things were going easy,” Diaz said. “I’m really focused on the most challenging times, I think that’s when you actually get the most change out of your department.”
There has already been a noticeable difference in the way the SPD responds to some smaller protests, with a more organized approach that does not appear likely to allow for things like abandoned precincts and autonomous zones.
Diaz admits there has been a change in tactics, though he did not give away any details. Admitting that mistakes were made, he also says there is a big focus on how the SPD responds to crowd control issues, including agitators intent on violence against police.
On day one of his new position, the Chief announced plans to shift 100 officers and detectives out of specialty units into patrol to beef up the department’s ability to respond to 911 calls. That plan is on track.
“September 30 is going to be the first day where those officers are going to be back,” Diaz said.
“I was faced with a very quick decision early on in my tenure, and I was willing to make it, and the mayor supported me on that decision. I think, honestly, I’m very fortunate to have that support,” he added. “I’m going to have to make decisions to run this department because we’re dealing with challenging times, and I can’t just rest on what we’ve done in the past. I’ve got to figure out how we’re actually going to problem solve and move this department forward.”
Diaz believes he brings a lot to his new role during challenging times.
“Sometimes it’s about the right timing. There’s a lot of discussion in our community about what policing needs to look like in their community, and so this is the right timing for those discussions,” Diaz explained. “And I’m really always willing to sit down with people and talk about my perspective as a police officer, but also my perspective as a person of color as well.”
Chief Diaz has worked with youth in years past, including leading discussions at local high schools about race, policing, and police brutality. Now, as chief, he says he has an even greater ability to help effect change.
“Now, taking the role as the actual chief of police and being able to move the department in the direction that I feel is best suited for this city, that’s my opportunity to lead and that’s what I’m going to do,” Diaz said.
When it comes to his philosophy on public safety, he says it’s important to remember that Seattle is a city of 780,000 people – a major city – with big city problems, and that includes murders, robberies, and rapes that require police response.
“Right now, our focus is on making sure that we have adequate police staffing to address those real big issues, and then there’s areas of policing that I would love to have discussions about what community organizations can take some of that work when it comes to mental health and homelessness,” Diaz said.
In response to the domestic violence, murder-suicide at Cal Anderson Park earlier this week involving a well-known prolific offender who cycled in and out of jail dozens of times, the Chief said many parts of the system failed.
“When you’re talking about a young man that has drug and alcohol addiction, has mental health [issues], and some of those failures in many of those systems, whether they could adequately protect her or take care of him, you’re talking about the prosecutors and the courts and you’re talking about the policing,” he said. “There’s so many entities that have a stake in this.”
But Diaz also believes there is an opportunity to learn from the tragic outcome.
“I think, honestly, this is where you could put a case like that on the table and say, ‘how do we solve this? How do we actually address these issues?’ Because there’s also homelessness as part of this,” Diaz explained. “I think that is where we actually have to figure out what our focus needs to be as we move forward.”
Diaz says he also wants to focus on supporting youth growing up with a variety of issues and trauma, including gang violence.
“When I look at a community in the South Precinct area, where [more] shots are fired disproportionately in that community than other communities, and the trauma that many of those kids face, those are the areas of how do we invest in those families and in youth to be able to not have to deal with that trauma every single day,” Diaz said. “And then also, how do we also create closure so that people aren’t shooting up the city?”
As far as adult members caught up in the system, Chief Diaz believes there is a role for police but also a better way to help people in that situation find a new path.
“I, personally, have always been extremely supportive of those investments into reintegration into the community because an adult that has come back into the gang life and had some level of incarceration, they’ve lost any hope to be able to step out of that gang life because they don’t have access to housing, medical care, they don’t have access to jobs, because of their record,” he said. “I’ve been a big proponent in making sure that people have options as they reintegrate in the community.”
“But when you’ve actually harmed the community, I’ve got to also be able to take you out of the community, and if that means incarceration, that means incarceration,” he added.
All of these issues will likely be discussed as the city moves forward on budget proposals, along with further talk of defunding and reimagining policing. Unlike his predecessor, Chief Diaz has already had an opportunity to talk to city councilmembers and is hopeful to find common ground in the weeks and months ahead.
Another priority for Diaz in the near future is officer morale.
“It’s a challenging time — we had, first, the pandemic, and then the demonstrations started, we lost a precinct, we gained a precinct, we had CHAZ, we had CHOP, so there is so much in officers’ lives and morale took a big hit, including many officers who have left the department,” Diaz said.
“I don’t have the exact number, but I do know it was a substantial amount that left,” he added. “We were actually at a very low rate of people leaving the department up until May 30, but now we have seen a drastic increase of people leaving.”