by Paul Faruq Kiefer
(This article previously appeared on PubliCola and has been reprinted under an agreement.)
On Wednesday, May 12, interim Seattle Police Chief Adrian Diaz announced his decision to overturn the Office of Police Accountability’s (OPA) findings in one of the most prominent misconduct cases of last summer’s protests. The case centered on the Seattle Police Department’s (SPD’s) use of blast balls, tear gas, and pepper spray against protesters at the intersection of 11th Avenue and Pine Street on the evening of June 1, 2020, after an officer attempted to yank a pink umbrella out of a protester’s hands.
The chief’s decision to overturn the OPA’s finding of excessive force against Lieutenant John Brooks, who gave the order to use the weapons against protesters, sparked an outcry from police accountability advocates and activist groups. The Community Police Commission (CPC), one of Seattle’s trio of police oversight bodies, called Diaz’s decision “detrimental to community trust in SPD and Seattle’s entire police accountability system,” particularly because he offered no detail about how he would hold decision-makers at a “higher level of command authority” responsible in lieu of Brooks.
In a conversation with PubliCola last week, Diaz said he does not want his decision to absolve Brooks of responsibility to overshadow his record as a disciplinarian. Since becoming interim chief in September 2020, Diaz has fired eight officers for misconduct, and two more officers retired to avoid termination; Diaz displays their badges in a wooden box on his desk.
Of the 10 officers Diaz has fired or would have fired, nearly all violated SPD’s policies prohibiting dishonesty or biased policing; among those officers was Sina Ebinger, who retired in lieu of termination after lying about misusing SPD’s Navigation Team to pick up her trash, as well as a 911 dispatcher who told a Black caller that “all lives matter.”
But Diaz has not yet fired any officers for using excessive force, despite the flood of use-of-force complaints stemming from last year’s protests. Diaz told PubliCola that when compared to dishonesty, the disciplinary standards for excessive force are generally less harsh. “A lot of inappropriate use-of-force cases are incidents in which an officer put hands on a person or did something that didn’t cause an injury but could still be excessive,” he said. “That doesn’t mean the officer was dishonest about it — they documented the incident, and they explained why they thought their actions were appropriate, but their supervisor disagreed.”
When would Diaz be willing to fire an officer for using excessive force? “If there’s an officer-involved shooting and the officer has a history of complaints from years past, we’re going to say, ‘We’ve trained you, we’ve done everything we can for you, and you’re still not getting it,’” he said. “That might end up reaching the level of termination.”
Diaz believes that he may sometimes impose more discipline for excessive force than those below him in the chain of command. In at least two cases — both involving excessive force during last summer’s protests — Diaz sided with Myerberg to impose a higher level of discipline than lower-ranking SPD leadership recommended; according to Myerberg, those decisions to split with his subordinates set Diaz apart from his predecessors.
Because of his experience training officers to use force at Washington’s police academy, Diaz reasons that he may be better-informed than other SPD leadership about what does and does not constitute appropriate force. “I know what officers were supposed to do when they’re training, so I can take all that into account,” he said. “I have that luxury of having a bit more in-depth experience in these areas [than most other members of the chain of command].”
The disciplines Diaz imposed in those cases were light, at least in the eyes of the public: Both an officer who placed his knee on a protester’s neck and an officer who repeatedly punched a demonstrator in the face during an arrest received written reprimands for their uses of force.
In theory, Diaz could establish a higher disciplinary standard for excessive force; in other words, Diaz could mandate that any officer who uses excessive force will face a harsher discipline than officers who committed similar misconduct in the past. But in his conversation with PubliCola, Diaz didn’t commit to broadly raising the disciplinary bar for excessive force.
Diaz told PubliCola that his approach to discipline often begins by asking what SPD can do to change an officer’s behavior. Though Diaz said that some forms of misconduct — particularly dishonesty — are a sign that an officer shouldn’t continue to work as a police officer, he also suggested that SPD could often employ a “restorative justice” approach to misconduct. “We do [restorative justice] in the community — like community courts — but I don’t think that police departments have ever really embraced the idea broadly,” he said.
In practice, that may mean assigning a problematic officer to a mentor or sending them to retrain, but Diaz admitted that he is still figuring out how to measure the success of those approaches.
Does Diaz see any risks associated with giving problematic officers — particularly those who have used excessive force — a second chance? “It is never about loyalty of the officer. It’s about trying to make sure that the people who do this job have certain skill sets that they develop over time,” he said. “But there’s a limit — you try to do everything you can to never put the community at risk.”
Paul Faruq Kiefer is a journalist, historian, and born-and-bred Seattleite. He has published work with KUOW, North Carolina Public Radio, and The Progressive magazine, and he is currently working on a podcast for KUAF in Fayetteville, Arkansas. Paul reports on police accountability for PubliCola.
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