Seattle Police Chief Removed; Former Sheriff Tapped as Interim Chief

May 30, 2024
"I've accomplished so much in the four years as chief, but there's more to be done," said Adrian Diaz after the announcement he had been removed as Seattle's police chief.

Seattle Police Chief Adrian Diaz has been removed from his post as the city's top cop, Mayor Bruce Harrell said Wednesday, a major shake-up in the Police Department as the city struggles to add new officers and right its increasingly shaky reputation.

He will be replaced in the interim by Sue Rahr, the onetime King County sheriff whose reputation grew as she evangelized the "guardians, not warriors" mantra for police while leading Washington's police academy. She will start in that role on Thursday.

The leadership overhaul is the culmination of months of internal strife and a parade of allegations that Diaz's police force was unwelcoming and even discriminatory toward women and people of color.

Though Diaz forcefully denied those allegations, several of which are being reviewed by an outside investigator, his hold on the department at a crucial time for the city was growing tenuous.

Speaking Wednesday, Harrell simultaneously praised Diaz as a friend and a valued member of the department, while also making clear the drip of allegations had become too much of a distraction. This, he said, is what the process of improvement looks like.

"You put your own egos to the side and say we can do and we can be better," he said. "So the people of Seattle should feel good about this move. We don't make panic moves; we make strategic moves."

Diaz, whose rank, salary and future duties in the department are still unclear, choked back tears as he spoke Wednesday. "I've accomplished so much in the four years as chief, but there's more to be done," he said.

Diaz will be working on "special assignments," said Harrell at a press conference Wednesday.

Diaz's ouster leaves a leadership vacuum in the Seattle Police Department as it continues to lose officers and struggles to emerge from the oversight of a federal judge, parts of which ended last year. For Harrell, the task is to find someone who can balance politics, law enforcement and community expectations.

In Rahr, Harrell gets an interim chief with more than 40 years of experience in law enforcement. She is not interested in the permanent position, she told Harrell, and will lead the search for new leadership.

Rahr got her start as a deputy in the King County Sheriff's Office in the late 1970s. In 2005, she was elected sheriff, a job she held until 2012. She quickly transitioned into being the director of Washington's Criminal Justice Training Commission, otherwise known as the state's academy for new recruits. She retired from the role in early 2021.

When she was academy director, Rahr's national profile grew just as Black Lives Matter protests were gaining momentum in the wake of Michael Brown's killing in Ferguson, Missouri. Rahr popularized the "guardians, not warriors" motto for policing and served on President Barack Obama's Task Force on 21st Century Policing.

Harrell approached Rahr about the position last week, she said. Now a consultant, she said she'd begun to feel uncomfortable "preaching from the sidelines." In the days ahead, she'll be doing a listening tour of the department, urging officers to be brutally honest with her about the state of policing in Seattle.

Rahr said her concerns about the culture within the department are the same as she has for every police department.

"I don't think the Seattle Police Department is worse or better than others," she said. " I think we have work to do in every department."

Diaz held the chief position for nearly four years — the first two as interim chief.

His ascension to the post came out of the chaos of 2020. Diaz took over when former Chief Carmen Best quit amid controversy over her handling of that summer's protests and her opposition to the City Council's policy goals, which included cutting the size and scope of the department.

Harrell launched a search for a permanent chief when he took office in 2022, but ultimately opted against a leadership change so early in his mayoral term.

Diaz joined the police department in 1997, was promoted to assistant chief in 2017 and became deputy chief in July 2020, a month before becoming interim chief.

He was born in Santa Ana, California, and grew up in Anaheim, California, then moved to Mercer Island while in high school. He earned a bachelor's degree in criminal justice from Central Washington University and a master's in public administration from the University of Washington.

Diaz spent his early years in the Police Department doing youth and community outreach work. He began his career in patrol and was assigned to a bike unit before working as an undercover officer with the anti-crime team. Later, he joined the investigations bureau. As an assistant chief, Diaz was in charge of the department's Collaborative Policing Bureau.

While chief, Diaz oversaw the rollout of the department's Community Service Officer program — a team of civilians tasked with taking on jobs that don't require sworn officers.

Since Diaz took over, his tenure has been defined by declining numbers of deployable officers in the department. Although the trend began before he took over, the total size has shrunk to below 1,000 officers from a high of nearly 1,400 before the pandemic.

Diaz triaged resources, cutting specialty units in favor of patrol. Those decisions often courted controversy, such as when the department's sexual assault unit stopped investigating new cases.

The department pledged its force would be 30% women by 2030, but those efforts have stumbled. A report, commissioned internally, found women in the department are broadly unhappy and see their opportunities as much narrower than those of their male colleagues.

That damning report, combined with recently filed lawsuits from longtime female employees, increased the demand in City Hall for change.

"I strongly support the mayor and his decision today," Councilmember Rob Saka said Wednesday.

Diaz's department also weathered what became an international incident, when officer Kevin Dave hit and killed a young woman from India, Jaahnavi Kandula. The police union's vice president, Daniel Auderer, was then filmed joking about the incident.

In a statement, a spokesperson for the Seattle Police Officers Guild thanked Diaz and said the union looked forward to working with Rahr.

As for replacing Diaz, the tension is often whether to hire internally or externally. Best and Diaz both came up through the department, a positive in the eyes of some, but restrictive of their ability to make change in the eyes of others. Before Best was selected by then-Mayor Jenny Durkan in 2018, some on the search committee — including current Deputy Mayor Tim Burgess — pushed for an outside hire who could help overhaul the department's culture.

The last outside hire was Kathleen O'Toole, who was brought in to help comply with the ongoing agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice to overhaul the department's use-of-force practices. She stepped down in 2017.

Harrell didn't rule out considering internal applicants, but implied a strong preference for going outside the department.

"The kind of culture change that I'm looking at, one has to question whether that can come from an internal candidate," he said.

The mayor's office will not hire a search firm, as it has done for more recent searches. Instead, O'Toole will make a return — even if only remotely — to help Rahr find a new chief.

Finding a replacement could be a challenge. Jim Pugel, who ended a long career as interim chief in 2013, sat on the 2022 search committee before Harrell appointed Diaz. At that time, he said, police departments nationwide were still in turmoil after the George Floyd protests of 2020.

"Not only did you see police chiefs getting fired but you saw them quitting," Pugel said.

As a result, Harrell didn't have a lot of great candidates to choose from, Pugel recalled, saying some of Diaz's competitors in the process had scant high-level experience.

"Adrian was the logical choice," said Pugel, now a policing consultant who thinks the national pool of big-city police chiefs remains shallow.

The mayor's office hopes to hire a new chief by the end of 2024.

Despite much of the federal oversight ending, the overhaul of the department's use-of-force practices remains unfinished, largely because the judge overseeing it is unsatisfied with the city's systems of officer accountability.

The next chief will also be tasked with turning around recruitment. The mayor recently signed a new collective bargaining agreement with the officers' union, giving large raises to most workers.

Seattle Times reporter Daniel Beekman contributed reporting.

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