By Mahlon Meyer
Northwest Asian Weekly
Adrian Diaz was chasing a suspect down Jackson Street. When he caught him, Diaz, then a 28-year-old police officer, employed a wrestling move and lifted the man off the ground, simultaneously apprehending the suspect and throwing out his back for the next two decades.
Now at the helm of the Seattle Police Department (SPD), Chief Diaz, 45, faces a restorative process not only for his own back, but for a department that has hit its “nadir,” according to an authority on policing, the former federal monitor.
For himself, he undertakes small workouts in the morning, with no hope of getting back to the 122-pound star wrestler, soccer player, and baseball player he was in high school, not to mention the champion jujitsu and judo competitor he would later become.
For the department, he has taken larger steps. In the less than one year since he was tapped to replace Carmen Best, the first Black female police chief in the city’s history, he has made drastic changes. He has terminated nine personnel and moved 100 officers back to patrol.
“That allowed more officers to respond to 911 calls,” he said in an interview. “We had to focus on the core foundation of police work.”
His morning workouts, by contrast, are minimal. He is just shooting for maintenance.
“I used to be able to do splits and back flips,” he said.
Still, when he walked to the podium in January after five Seattle police officers were found to have taken part in the demonstration at the United States Capitol, he moved agilely like a cat.
But with the police department, the task is a little more challenging, to say the least.
“It was chaos,” he said, when he took over in August.
Two police chiefs had abruptly departed in a row. When the former mayor was caught up in a scandal, some members of the police department illegally released screen shots of a dispatch computer, in an apparent attempt to smear him, according to a report by the Office of Police Accountability (OPA).
The current mayor announced she would not launch a search for a new chief.
And the departing federal monitor (Seattle has been under a federal consent decree since 2012 for excessive force and possible racially biased policing) recommended that the department bring in someone from outside the department.
Diaz acted decisively. He fired three personnel for racial bias—one officer, one member of traffic enforcement, and one in dispatch, he said. He fired five for lying and one for violating policies.
The nightly protests that were wracking the city last year were pulling officers away from patrol. The homicide rate was up. Moreover, the department had been hit with the greatest mid-year funding cuts in history. Morale was low and 185 officers had left.
Asked in a follow-up email why the police took no action when Black Lives Matter (BLM) splinter groups looted and attacked the Chinatown-International District last May, Diaz responded he was not chief at the time so was not privy to all the decisions.
However, he said he believes the splinter groups were not associated with BLM, but were anarchists/direct action demonstrators focused on destruction, not on exercising their First Amendment rights. Also, he said, the SPD had very little information that these splinter groups were going to attack the CID—or anywhere—that evening.
A family history of police work
Diaz said he has police work in his blood. His father was a police officer in the Air Force. And his brother, eight years his senior, was and still is a member of the SPD.
His own progression toward police work started perhaps when he was a 98-pound stripling his freshman year in high school. He had played other sports, but was willow thin and relatively weak.
“I was always getting my butt kicked by my best friend and held down by my older brother,” who was a wrestler, he said.
(When a reporter clarified if his brother is currently a lieutenant, Diaz quickly corrected him. “Acting lieutenant,” he said.)
Diaz tried out wrestling and it changed his life. He was soon virtually undefeated. As he grew older, he wrestled at different weight classes, all hovering around 120 pounds.
He also began to read, as he progressed into martial arts, about Eastern philosophy, and stoicism.
He learned two things in wrestling—it takes others to succeed. One always needs a partner to train with. And without that partner, you will never progress.
“But when you’re wrestling, it’s all you,” he said.
Wrestling became a symbol for liberation. His brother moved on and joined the military, which Diaz described as a vehicle many Latino boys take to escape various societal systems.
“It is a way for many Latinos to get out of the barrio,” he said.
Diaz did not come from a strictly oppressed or impoverished background.
But he “didn’t grow up with money,” he said.
His father, after leaving the Air Force, managed a grocery store while his mother cut hair in a convalescent home.
“Both of my parents were very engaged with me.”
For the sake of his schooling, they moved from Anaheim up to the Eastside of Seattle, where his grandmother lived.
It was in fact his great grandmother who had come over from Mexico and the family had originally settled in Kansas. Diaz speaks some Spanish.
But there was always wrestling.
When his father brought him up to Mercer Island High School for the first time, having just moved up there, he said to the wrestling coach, “When he’s not with me, he’s with you.”
Diaz later passed on that commitment to countless other boys. He coached wrestling at Mercer for five years, then after a break, he coached for another five years at Chief Sealth, then again another five years at Mercer.
Along the way, he joined the academy. He had offers for both Seattle and Los Angeles. But he chose Seattle.
Shortly before joining the SPD, he studied for a short time at Bellevue College and then took Chicano studies and Ethnic Studies classes at the University of Washington. Later, after he joined the department, he went back to school and finished his degree in Criminal Justice and Law. He later earned a master’s degree.
Coming into this role, he’s had to distinguish himself as a leader yet cleave to the common ideals he shares with his predecessor. Describing himself and Best as “servant leaders,” he said his leadership style did not differ from hers significantly. However, he was quick to point out that he had terminated more officers than any previous chief.
“We must have accountability,” he said. “Police officers must follow the laws and policies they are sworn to keep.”
He is opposed to defunding the police. However, he said, he clearly understands the need to support marginalized communities with additional services.
“I completely support community investment in BIPOC communities. I’ve seen kids not able to reach their potential because they deteriorated up to the point of incarceration,” he said.
The department has adopted ABLE training, which coaches officers to intervene if they perceive anything wrong in the way another officer is handling a situation.
It is working through crowd management issues and crafting a “usable strategic plan.”
He has also held listening and learning sessions with the community.
“I’ve done what I’ve needed to do to build relations back with the community, it doesn’t mean there haven’t been hurdles.”
Diaz likened the need for police to the needs associated with handling long-term domestic abuse. Police are needed to handle the potential for homicide or abuse involving the parents. But for kids, he said, that is where you need community partners.
“It takes a partnership.”
In 2004, a community group asked the SPD to address violence among young Latino gang members. Diaz was asked by the department to become a liaison with the community, which also marked the creation of a broader Community Outreach Unit.
According to a law enforcement publication, Diaz focused on building strong relationships with community members. He also engaged with the gamut of problems facing the community, facilitating ESL classes, public works repairs, and other initiatives.
He led funding drives to supplement department funds, including reaching out to every 7-Eleven in the city to raise $12,000. He also sought funding from major corporations.
By 2005, the unit had expanded to 25 employees.
Before its inception, there had been seven homicides in 18 months. But from 2005-2016, the SPD reported no homicides related to gang violence, according to the publication, “Strengthening Relationships Between Police and Immigrant Communities in a Complex Political Environment,” published by the Police Executive Research Forum in 2018.
“I will have led the department through some of the most challenging times and I haven’t been afraid to lead.”
Mahlon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.