Diaz shakes up department in wake of police shooting

Diaz shakes up department in wake of police shooting »Play Video
Mayor Mike McGinn, left, speaks during a news conference on Wednesday, September 15, 2010, while Seattle police chief John Diaz looks on.
SEATTLE -- Seattle Police Chief John Diaz announced dramatic changes to his department Wednesday in the wake of a controversial shooting in which an officer shot and killed a member of the Native American community.

Diaz says his department will reassign nine new top commanders to focus on community outreach and new training techniques, including promoting Assistant Chief Nick Metz to deputy chief of operations and community relations.

Their goal will also be to help reduce fear in the city, fight crime, and promote relationships with neighbors.

"We have lost some of that throughout the years -- that sense of connection, that social fabric that keeps us together," Diaz said.

As part of the department's revamp, which will be effective Oct. 1, Capt. Steve Brown will take command of the training section to review and revise what officers are taught. Diaz and other police officials said de-escalation training, in which officers are taught to tamp down a volatile situation, would be reemphasized. A number of additional officers will receive crisis intervention training for when they encounter people suffering from mental illness and other crisis situations.

"What it really comes down to is skillful decision-making," Diaz said. "Our job is to bring peace. Our job is to make things better."

Diaz and McGinn also outlined some of their previous efforts to better officers' training, including adding a mental health provider to pair a mental health professional with police, assess the viability of wearable cameras for officers, and looking to expand the number of officers that are equipped with Tasers.

Civil rights leaders have been questioning why so many minorities are dying in officer-involved shootings.

There is more than one police investigation under way in the aftermath of several shootings -- one of them the controversial shooting of John T. Williams, a member of Seattle's Native American community, who was killed by a Seattle police officer on Aug. 30. Community members say Williams was harmlessly holding a whittling knife when an officer fired after Williams refused orders to drop it.

One of those groups questioning police is the Mothers for Police Accountability.

"Hopefully it's going to be with some action steps about making Seattle," said Rev. Harriet Walden. "Because right now people are saying don't call the police if you got an event because they now want to be safe from the police."

The groups say they want changes in use of force policies, and more cultural sensitivity training for officers.

Later Wednesday afternoon, civic leaders complained loudly to a city council subcommittee on civil rights, saying the officer had plenty of options besides shooting Williams to death.

"The question I'm asking is, is that the best use of force?" said Seattle City Councilmember Burce Harrell. "Are there non-lethal alternatives? Can we train officers, for example, to understand that people react differently to police officers?"

In the meantime, Diaz said their internal investigation into Williams' shooting, which included interviews with 16 witnesses, will be completed in a few days. That information will go to the firearms review board, and then a King County inquest, which is standard procedure. Diaz says he won't discuss the case until after the inquest is complete, which should happen within 90 days.

But Diaz did say his department is prepared to allow two outside police agencies to conduct their own peer review, which would be finished before any inquest.

McGinn and Diaz were questioned about why it could be weeks or months before the public is allowed to review the investigation materials. McGinn said the city was following a legal process, but stressed accountability was his top concern.

Ultimately the department will decide whether Birk should be returned to duty, assigned different tasks within the department, or fired.

"We will make a decision and we will be held responsible. I will be held responsible," McGinn said.

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