Out of Sight: After a Year of Controversy, Police Chief John Diaz Remains an Elusive Figure

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Last week, Councilmember Bruce Harrell floated the idea of a ballot measure that would have the police chief reconfirmed every four years by the council. He said his idea is not meant as a dig at current Chief John Diaz. But it can't help but provoke questions about Diaz--the main one being, why has the chief been largely out of sight as his department has undergone tremendous scrutiny over the past year? Certainly, the city doesn't have the same sense of Diaz than it had of previous charismatic chiefs Gil Kerlikowske and Norm Stamper.

"I couldn't agree more," says Harrell. "That' not just my opinion, but of many opinion leaders."

At many events over the last year, it's not Diaz but members of his command staff that have taken the lead in talking to the public. Assistant Chief Mike Sanford is the one that's been out in front working on the "20/20" reform plan, SPD's response to the sweeping criticism around use of force leveled by the federal Department of Justice. Deputy Chief Nick Metz answered reporters' questions about a gun buyback recently put on by the department. Clark Kimerer, another deputy chief, frequently takes the limelight on other occasions.

Harrell, chair of the council's public safety committee, says he, personally, does have a sense of the chief, whom he describes as "very likable, extremely knowledge" and "loyal, both to the department to the mayor." The councilmember goes on to say that where he believes Diaz "falls short" is his failure to deliver "inspirational leadership" that reassures the public at times of crisis or tragedy.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given Harrell's campaign for mayor, he finds a way to blame Mike McGinn. The mayor, Harrell says, has not given the chief "clear directions to follow." Harrell cites such issues as the drones police wanted to use and surveillance cameras on Alki, both of which sparked criticism from the mayor. According to the councilmember, "the chief's absence is a result [of wanting] not to screw up."

Diaz insists that's not the case. Just back from a nine-day vacation in Europe with his family, he tells SW that he and the mayor meet every week to hash over issues. He maintains he and the mayor came to an agreement on drones, for instance, both recognizing that they were too controversial to move ahead with.

The chief acknowledges, however, that he is not as visible as he might be. He explains it this way: "I've never tried to be out in front getting publicity for myself. Frankly, I've never been very good at it." Public speaking, he explains, is not his strong suit. Rather, he says, "I"m much better working in small groups." He also declares himself a big believer in "listening," a skill he says he picked up early on in his career, when he spent three years as a criminal investigator for the Army.

That's not the only reason he says he lets his command staff do much of the talking. He says he also wants to give others credit for the work they're in charge of, a self-effacing ethos also noted by SPD spokesperson Sean Whitcomb.

Diaz's elusiveness may well stem from admirable traits. Still, it's bound to leave some in the city wondering who exactly this man is who's in charge of the oft-criticized SPD.

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