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Mayor McGinn is now saying that he will not seek a new chief during the remainder of his current term due to concerns that well-qualified applicants would shy away from a situation where their boss (Seattle’s mayor) might change within a few months. This is a mixed bag – it means McGinn, a shameless apologist for the worst aspects of SPD’s behavior and culture, likely won’t be driving the replacement process, but it also means that Interim Chief Jim Pugel will have a year or more on the job and, should he choose, will be in a much stronger position to win permanent appointment as yet another internal hire. G.P.
John Diaz retired today as chief of the Seattle Police Department, only three years after Mayor McGinn chose him as an internal hire, over a well-qualified African-American reform candidate from California, as the first major decision of his mayoral tenure.
By any measure, Diaz’s three years at the helm of SPD were a disaster. They were dominated by a federal investigation into abusive and racist practices by SPD and the strong resistance of Diaz, McGinn, the police unions, and the entire department to the changes (watered down by that resistance) that have been imposed as a result. Neither Diaz nor McGinn has ever even acknowledged that SPD’s many critics – up to and including the federal Department of Justice – have legitimate concerns, or that anything’s wrong with SPD at all. And that’s exactly why Diaz is retiring now.
Even though he’s running, most observers don’t give McGinn much of a shot at being re-elected; it seems more likely, in fact, that McGinn may be a lame duck as soon as the August primary. McGinn must choose a successor, and then the city council must approve it. Diaz (and quite possibly McGinn, who may have influenced both the decision and the timing of Diaz’s retirement) wants McGinn, an ardent defender of the SPD status quo, to pick the next chief, rather than the next mayor.
At least three of the major candidates for mayor – Bruce Harrell, Ed Murray, and Peter Steinbrueck – have been critical of SPD. Diaz wants McGinn – not one of them – picking his replacement. In the bubble world that is law enforcement, where only a few malcontents are critics and most of the public loves our Men In Blue, he may even think making the choice – presumably, in Diaz’s mind, interim chief Jim Pugel or another insider – will boost McGinn’s re-election chances. In point of fact, McGinn’s enabling of SPD’s worst tendencies has significantly eroded the base of liberal support that unexpectedly got him elected four years ago.
But here’s where it gets interesting. McGinn’s choice must also be approved by city council, and the two city council members most critical to that decision – Tim Burgess, a former cop and a fierce defender of SPD who is nonetheless smart enough to read political tea leaves, and Harrell, the current chair of the council’s Public Safety committee – are also running for mayor. For Harrell, as the only non-white candidate in the race (or on city council) an as a lesser-known long shot, this process is a golden opportunity to advocate for his natural base, make a name for himself, and distinguish himself from his half-dozen rivals.
Normally, the Public Safety chair would work with the mayor on selecting a replacement – but as we’ve seen with McGinn’s negotiations with the DoJ over its SPD consent decree, the mayor is loathe to work with other elected officials, especially SPD critics, in his handling of the department. If McGinn attempts to shut Harrell out of the decision, expect Harrell to make a lot of noise about it – up to and including trying to block a bad nomination.
The interim chief announced today, Jim Pugel, is a long-time prominent figure within SPD. He was in the thick of the SPD catastrophe that was the anti-WTO demonstrations in 1999, and more recently was also in the news around the drone and waterfront camera controversies. Pugel, unlike many of his colleagues, has never been afraid to engage with the public, which is in his favor.
However, even if Pugel’s history were exemplary – and it’s not – he’d be the wrong choice to become the permanent chief. The last thing SPD needs is to be led by yet another long-time insider promoted from an organization suffering from a top-to-bottom cultural rot that tolerates abusive policing, racism, and contempt for the public it allegedly serves.
What the department needs is a 2010′s version of Norm Stamper – a hire made 15 years ago with the explicit intent of bringing in a reform-minded career cop who would have no qualms challenging the internal status quo and, where needed, cleaning house. Stamper was only modestly successful in that task, largely because he didn’t get the political support he needed from then-mayor Paul Schell and others. But there’s a strong chance the next mayor will be much more attuned to SPD’s woes and the need to fix them. And if Mike McGinn has any hope of being the next mayor, he needs to hear loud and clear from voters that his re-election hinges completely on his willingness to pivot away from his disastrous stewardship of SPD to date and his internal hire of John Diaz three years ago.