By Mahlon Meyer
Northwest Asian Weekly
When a Seattle police officer reached out and grabbed a pink umbrella from a protester last summer, it triggered a cataclysm of events that changed the nature of the protests.
At that moment, officers released tear gas and pepper spray on the crowd.
Omari Salisbury, a journalist on the ground live-streaming the events, said, “Before that, the protests had been against systemic racism, of which the Seattle police was a part. But after that, the protests were against the police itself.”
Now, another casualty from that day is Steve Hirjak, then assistant police chief, now demoted to captain.
As cries for police accountability have rung around the country, different narratives have emerged about who precisely was responsible for the escalation of violence. Was it the officer who grabbed the pink umbrella? Was it the lieutenant on the scene who apparently gave the order to disperse the crowd using tear gas and pepper spray? Or was it Hirjak, the incident commander who, according to others, may have been the one ultimately responsible for overall tactics?
The Office of Police Accountability, whose investigators are primarily police officers that rotate in for relatively short-term assignments, dismissed charges against the officer who actually pulled the umbrella. Although the OPA found that the incident apparently triggered the escalation, its investigation determined that because the officer did not presume that his actions would have that effect, he should not be held accountable.
“He told OPA that, based on prior experience at the protests, he did not expect the seizure of the umbrella to provoke the level of crowd response that it did. He further stated that, on several prior occasions, officers under his command were able to seize and, at times, destroy umbrellas without any comparable crowd reaction,” said the report.
Instead, the OPA found the lieutenant on the scene responsible, faulting his decision to disperse a crowd that was on the whole not bent on violence against the police.
But last month, Chief Adrian Diaz chose not to act on its recommendation. (The OPA may issue recommendations, but the SPD is not required to accept them.)
Instead, Diaz chose to demote Hirjak. In an interview with the Asian Weekly, Diaz said he was looking at the totality of the events that happened that weekend, which included the destruction of the Chinatown-International District.
“We are committed to making sure our CID community is safe, we really hope all our people are engaged in the community.”
Diaz said he was not trying to scapegoat anyone but was responding to nationwide calls for reform.
“This is not about me as a chief, but it’s about a cultural shift, it’s about holding people accountable at the highest level.”
When Hirjak was elevated to assistant chief in late 2018, the Asian American Pacific Island (AAPI) community celebrated him as the first AAPI to reach that level in SPD history. Hirjak’s mother was Korean.
At the time, community leader Frank Irigon wrote an email to then police chief Carmen Best, thanking her and saying that the late community leader Al Sugiyama “is very happy and giving high fives in heaven.”
Contacted by the Asian Weekly, Irigon said he had not been aware of Hirjak’s demotion. But he suggested that in the end, the outcome was due to the outsize influence of the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild (SPOG), which comprises officers and sergeants.
“I was surprised that it happened. My question was why Diaz reversed an OPA decision to hold one officer responsible then put that on Steve’s shoulder. As if Steve was responsible for Capitol Hill and the CID. What about [former Police Chief] Carmen [Best]? Diaz and the rest of the officers? Why was Steve being sacrificed? It’s time for a change. It appears SPOG is still in charge of the SPD,” he said in an email.
Hirjak, in an interview with Asian Weekly, was unable to comment directly on the situation.
“Unfortunately I can’t defend myself because of department policy,” he said.
Several days after being demoted, Hirjak said he attended a function at the African American Community Advisory Council and shared a story about when he first arrived at the academy.
“Some of my classmates said I was just another EEOC [Equal Employment Opportunity Commission] hire, but I had out tested many of them.”.
“There are stereotypes that Asians are more accepting of structure and willing to go along with their role,” Hirjak said.
“This does result in treatment I’ve experienced, for instance when someone says, ‘give it to Steve, he’ll do what he’s told, he won’t rock the boat.”
The son of an Air Force meteorologist, Hirjak and his family moved around the country as he grew up, living in Maine, Arizona, Hawaii, Virginia, Las Vegas, L.A., and Atlanta.
When he joined the Air Force himself, he was stationed in Southern California and then in Nevada. He experienced his share of racism, but nowhere was it as bad as in Seattle, he said, despite its reputation for being a progressive city.
“When I was promoted to assistant chief, other departments around the country had had Asian command staff since the 1970s,” he said.
Hirjak described himself as someone who advanced through hard work and being willing to tackle anything. While he was in the Air Force, he applied for early release to join the SPD, but was required to stay because of his skills to help fight computer hackers.
“But I wanted to be a cop. I had a strong sense of wanting to be a protector,” he said.
When his mother died, in Las Vegas, he was both dealing with the aftermath of a major shooting in which a dozen officers were investigated and in the middle of contract negotiations for the city seeking multi-million-dollar data analytics support.
“I was on the team, if something had gone wrong, it would have given grounds to the bidders to file a lawsuit if they didn’t get it.”
Hirjak chose to stay and handle the complex situations rather than go to his mother’s funeral.
In uniform, he has experienced countless incidents of racism, but it has been his experiences out of uniform that have seemed the most appalling.
Standing in line at a Fred Meyer recently, the checkout clerk let three white men simply swipe their credit cards and pass through. But when it came to a Black man, just in front of him, she checked his ID, required he show his credit card, and eyed him with suspicion. Hirjak faced the same treatment.
But his 27 years on the force have left him with a feeling of satisfaction. He was given an award for rescuing a kidnapped mother and child. He arrested murderers, helped stop gang violence on Aurora Avenue, and said he was especially good at finding kids who had run away from home.
“I’ve had a career that no matter what happens, when I’m at the end of my time, I can say I’ve truly helped people.”
Mahlon can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.