Saturday, July 10, 2010

Culture: Chief Diaz Woes Unimaginable

TORONTO, ONTARIO - I have sometimes made the case that Seattle, Washington is a really a Canadian city that happens to be south of the 49th parallel. Every once in awhile something happens to completely undermine this idea, and the recent controversy over the promotion of John Diaz to become the Chief of Police in Seattle provides a stark example.

Seattle's Police Chief position had been vacant since the popular incumbent, Gil Kerlikowske, was tapped by the Obama administration to become the United States' national Drug Czar in early 2009. John Diaz had been selected to become acting chief as a nationwide search was undertaken. A committee narrowed the field to three candidates, Sacramento (California) police chief Rick Braziel, East Palo Alto (California) police chief Ron Davis, and Diaz, in May 2010.

This spring also just happened to be a time of rising racial tension in Seattle. In an especially well-publicized incident, two African-American students out of a group of five were handled overly roughly by a lone officer after they resisted arrest following a jaywalking infraction. One of them was punched in the jaw. (And where else but civilized Seattle could a jaywalking infraction become a racial incident?) Some African-American community leaders were outraged at the actions of the department, which "merely" immediately opened an investigation into the incident.

The incident started to play into the chief selection process. The lone African-American candidate, Davis, had been criticized for lacking experience with a large department since East Palo Alto has less than forty officers (though he had previously worked in the leadership in much larger Oakland, California), and seemed the clear third-place candidate behind Diaz and Braziel. Because of the tension with the African-American community, Diaz, who happens to be Hispanic, also seemed an untenable candidate politically for Mayor Mike McGinn, and many thought Braziel was the only universally-acceptable candidate. While stating they preferred internal candidates, a police officers union spokesman stated that Braziel was "head and shoulders" above Davis in their estimation.

This is where Seattle could not be mistaken for a Canadian city. There is no such thing as a African-American community with any degree of homogeneity in large Canadian cities. There are multiple Black communities, mostly based on country of ancestry, just like there are multiple communities of most races, mostly based on country of ancestry. Finding monolithic culture in Canadian cities is difficult. It is hard to imagine how a single incident could energize enough communities to influence a city-wide political race or decision, particularly not on racial grounds. It may not be an uniquely American phenomenon, but it's not a Canadian one.

To everyone's surprise, in early June, Braziel withdrew from contention, stating that he wanted to remain in Sacramento. Mayor McGinn, left with only two candidates to choose from, angered African-American leaders by selecting Diaz. Diaz, for his part, is saying all the right things about more dialog with community leaders. In his first interview, aired before I left the Seattle area on KIRO-FM's Dave Ross show, I found Diaz to quite impressive and downright funny with his lines about his wife "taking eighteen months to decide to marry him" and that "my friends tell me that I'm inarticulate in two languages."

I suspect that if it were Toronto instead of Seattle, everyone would be heaping praise on John Diaz.

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