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Seattle Police Chief Diaz: A different kind of cop

Seattle Police Chief Adrian Diaz is the right person in the right place at the right time as the department rebuilds after years of unrest

By Linda Lowry & Rob Smith May 22, 2023

Adrian Diaz served as police chief for almost four years.

This article originally appeared in the May/June 2023 issue of Seattle magazine.

Name a job in the Seattle Police Department, and Adrian Diaz has probably done it.

Major Bruce Harrell officially named Adrian Diaz as chief of police last fall after he had served as interim chief since the summer of 2020, replacing Carmen Best. Diaz had been deputy chief for only a month when he found himself in the top role. He is responsible for 1,200 sworn officers and another 600-plus civilian employees.

In his two-plus decades career, he earned acclaim as a patrol officer, a bike cop, an investigator, and an undercover officer working the streets. That experience proved crucial when he became interim chief. The department was losing officers. It had lost a precinct in the Capitol Hill neighborhood (CHOP). Violent crime was on the rise. Morale was low.

The soft-spoken, eloquent, and thoughtful Diaz, however, is not your “normal” cop. He talks about the root causes of crime and how to prevent them. His focus is on prevention, not force. Simply put, he’s a kinder, gentler version of a big-city police chief. He reads philosophy every morning and evening, and always carries a coin in his pocket related to a philosophical principal. The one on this day says “amor fati,” a Latin phrase meaning “love of one’s fate.”

A father of three children, Diaz found himself spending inordinate amounts of time at his kids’ sporting events, so he picked up a camera and taught himself photography. He is particularly interested in taking shots of the moon and sporting events, including University of Washington football games and Seattle Sounders soccer matches.

What did you learn from Carmen Best? She was my lieutenant when I was in charge of antiviolence gang issues with our investigations bureau. I made a push with our chief at the time to create a community outreach unit and I suggested that she be moved over there. I think we really became almost like brother and sister, and we learned to just kind of develop our skills together. She was a great mentor.

What was going through your mind when you became chief? I knew the hurdles that I was going to be faced with. It was a discussion of 50% reduction of the department. Violent crime was starting to increase. We were losing officers and staffing. We were dealing with protests and riots. I felt like I had a lot of understanding and knowledge that was going to make me ready for these immense challenges. I knew I was going to want to do this job until I fixed the department.

Are you at that point right now? We still have a long way to go (but) we’re already putting innovative stuff in. We created “Before the Badge” (a five-week training course for new officers that emphasizes community policing.) We’re doing an equity, accountability, and quality initiative. It’s all focused on relational policing. Everything that we do in life is always about relationships.

What’s morale like now? I don’t think we could go any lower than where we were. We had lost a precinct. We’ve lost 525 officers. Everyone was losing officers. A lot of units had to be abrogated. I had to put people back into patrol and really look at our core functions. I still feel like we’ve got low morale, but we’re 10 times, just 100 times better than what we were in 2020.

What’s a key focus for you? We do a lot of stuff on fitness and wellness. We’ve got contracts with clinical psychologists that help at each of our precincts. Sometimes they do ride-alongs with some of the officers. We also have three wellness dogs. My simple thought is that if we have a healthy officer, we’re going to have healthy outcomes in the community.

Adrian Diaz’s passion is photography. He especially enjoys shooting sporting events (above) and the moon.

Photo by Chief Adrian Diaz

You and the mayor say you want to hire 125 new officers every year. Well, our highest hiring year was 110. Wellness and resiliency I do think are selling points. Other agencies have  some of the little perks that we might not have, but I think that when we actually care about people and care about their wellness … that’s the reason why I encourage people to just say thank you to officers.

What causes a police officer to be exceptional long-term? That’s a good question. I don’t know if I have a good answer. But what you are looking for is No. 1, somebody that comes in with passion, somebody that’s respectful, someone that has a high level of integrity, someone that understands equity and making sure that they provide that to the community. So, you have to see beyond what the application says.

When incidents like Tyre Nichols happen in Memphis, what’s the conversation like inside SPD? What goes through your mind? I think every officer was disgusted by it. No good officer likes a bad officer. It makes their job that much harder. Those are clear cases of how you make sure that those officers are completely weeded out of our profession.

How important is it for you and the department to have a good relationship with the city council or mayor? For me, it’s extremely important. And I think that’s where Chief Best had noted that she felt no one was listening to her. I did have a little bit of savings with the city council because there was a lot of understanding of just how community oriented I was. You’re constantly trying to nurture the relationships to make sure the department is moving in the right direction.

What have you learned about policing while visiting other countries? Around 2004, I was just starting my time as a Latino community liaison for the department. The consul of Peru was at a meeting and said, “If you want to learn about my community, you need to understand the policing that happens in that community.” My boss at the time (former Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske) called me into his office and asked me if I’d like to go (to Peru). It was a life-changer for me and gave me a whole different perspective on how to look at policing. The police department runs their foster care system. It’s really about engaging early on. It just opened my eyes to this prevention and intervention work that I had not thought about.

What are some alternative approaches to public safety? We find ourselves policing a lot of social issues. You look at homelessness, behavioral crises, mental health. There’s a lot of areas that we find ourselves in that are not really the skill sets we’ve spent a lot of time learning about. We train officers how to deescalate and to deal with people in crisis, but could there be another area that people who have specialty skills can do a better job?

Don’t refer to us as law enforcement. Refer to us as a police service.

How has your experience influenced this? Early in my career, my job was to identify when I saw a youth that was going down the wrong path, but I wasn’t the case manager. I wasn’t the person that was going to provide mental health services. I wasn’t the person that was going to get them a job. Who do I call to get wraparound services?

Mayor Harrell recently said the city would start sending unarmed social workers to respond to some 911 calls. Does that concern you? How often do you dispatch a police officer and maybe a social worker? Maybe we’re the primary and then the social worker’s secondary, maybe we’re the secondary and the social worker’s primary. We actually built a risk management program to look at all the calls for service and what could potentially be handled by maybe a social service worker or a mental health counselor.

How would that work? We have officers paired up with mental health case workers that actually respond to many crisis calls. Back [a few years ago], I helped reinvigorate the community services office program. Officers will handle the initial call, but for follow-up, they’ll actually reach out to a CSO to do that kind of extra care.

Why did the violent crime rate in the city drop 18% in the fourth quarter compared to the same period in 2021? Our plan for violent crime is what we call CAPE (Community, Analytics, Prevention, Enforcement). How do you utilize community groups to help offset potential issues? Analytics (are) where we need to make sure I put offers and understanding the different dynamics of the community. Then I look at the prevention side. What are we doing to get guns off the street? Environment is creating better lighting spaces, cutting back brush. Make sure that we create welcoming spaces. The last one is enforcement, making sure that our officers are at the right location.

What leadership skills and tools have you implemented to navigate your career in the police force as a person of color? I’ve always sought out different opportunities to educate myself and learn. I finished my bachelor’s degree in American Ethnic Studies and Chicano studies. I had a big background in understanding police and race and all of the different challenges before I had this career in the police service. I have also gone to different trainings, FBI, National Executive Institute, Senior Management Institute of Policing. I’m just a normal guy that literally wants to learn and understand how we can make policing better.

How do you influence, inspire, and motivate your team? It’s making sure that I give them something to reflect on and what my values are. I was reading a book, Ego is the Enemy, and emphasizing we are always students of learning and understanding and to not allow ourselves to think we know it all. I love Pete Carroll’s model, which is always compete, always challenge ourselves, and always make sure to adapt.

How has philosophy shaped your approach? I always talk about the four virtues of stoic philosophy: wisdom, justice, courage, and temperance. Wisdom is always being the student and always learning. I really try and make sure that I treat everybody with respect. I appreciate all of the mentorship I’ve been able to receive. Mentorship is the single most important engagement in anybody’s career.

What’s been the most challenging time in your tenure as chief and what’s been the most fun? It’s chaos in both, because in chaos you’re dealing with constant crisis, right? But some of the (most fun) things are when you’re in chaos. You create the most change. While chaos is sometimes bad, it’s also fun because it’s really allowing us to think completely differently.

How is law enforcement different from 25 years ago? Don’t refer to us as law enforcement. Refer to us as a police service because that language will actually help to create culture change. If we only say law enforcement, then we will only have one function. The majority of our department and cultural service are not about enforcing the law. It’s sometimes education and sometimes it’s connecting people to resources and services. It’s getting people to adjust to the language.

What was working undercover like? I would buy and sell narcotics as part of our bust-buy operations. It was chaos and craziness. One of the biggest cases wasn’t huge but could have gone a different way for a small amount of money. I had bought narcotics in a case around Third and Pine. Two people came across the street and wanted to sell narcotics, and basically, they were wanting to rob us. And one of them ends up pulling out a gun and putting it in my stomach. I was able to talk myself out of the situation, but it could have gone a lot of different ways.

Are there some officers who don’t want to work undercover? Everyone has a different role. I’ll be honest. I was good at it. Maybe it was being young and being able to talk the language. Now I look at myself and there’s no way I could do that anymore. I did it for close to four years and I just loved it.

What is your response when people say they don’t think Seattle is safe anymore? It’s challenging for me to hear. I understand where people are. I’m hearing more stories of people saying it feels safer. When I look at our downtown core, I know it’s going to come back. It might not be an easy hurdle, but nothing in life is easy.

Where did you learn your photography skills? I started off with a class on “Crime Scene Investigations.” The class taught the basic understanding of a camera, and I’m really just self-taught. I just see what I like and what I don’t like and reading about photography. I am still a beginner.

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