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Originally published Sunday, August 15, 2010 at 2:05 PM

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New chief has much to do to make Seattle a safer city

A hearty welcome and a to-do list for the new Seattle police chief, John Diaz

SEATTLE'S newly confirmed chief of police, John Diaz, will be sworn in Monday with pomp and ceremony. Much is expected of him, especially in the area of street disorder, crime fighting and improving the city's overall sense of safety.

Diaz's selection by Mayor Mike McGinn and unanimous confirmation by the City Council marks a unique moment for the city, at least in the current administration. Diaz has strong personal and professional qualifications — enough to prompt agreement between the mayor and council. And that does not happen every day.

Diaz, a Latino, is the first minority chief in department history and first permanent chief hired from inside the department in more than 30 years.

He brings healthy doses of confidence and humbleness to the job. Earlier this year, an officer was caught on videotape kicking a Latino man, while using ethnically inflammatory language. Diaz handled the embarrassing incident well: He said the city would have to "start over" rebuilding relations with the Latino community.

There is also work to be done to improve relations with the African American community. Diaz, to his credit, made building peace with all communities a top goal.

One should admire Diaz's guts to say what he thinks, even when he does not agree with his boss, McGinn. As interim chief, he favored a very reasonable package of street civility measures proposed by Councilmember Tim Burgess, even as McGinn was preparing to veto the plan. "My value is I give him my best opinion and best advice," Diaz said in an interview, adding, "Then, when the decision is made, I will follow it."

The council was unable to override the veto. So if not that package, what? Diaz plans a variety of new approaches: employing a mental health professional to direct certain people to services; easing some vagrants into drug programs and smarter use of environmental design and brighter, well-placed and energy-efficient street lighting, the latter championed by Councilmember Bruce Harrell.

A council letter to the chief, penned by Burgess, outlines appropriately high expectations for the months ahead: best practices to solve recurring and new crime problems. Specifically, the chief is urged to aggressively seek reductions in rates of domestic violence, robbery, theft, aggravated assault and residential burglary. The letter also, appropriately, calls for new efforts to reduce illegal open-air drug markets that plague certain neighborhoods.

Diaz is moving officers around, sometimes pulling from non-patrol units, to ensure police response times remain prompt and there are enough feet on the street. This is critical to the public safety of our neighborhoods. So far, it is a work in progress. The proof will be in the way people feel about venturing downtown and to other parts of the city.

The mayor stalled a five-year effort to add 21 officers annually because of budget constraints. A leader who can better prioritize and delve into employee contracts that have automatic cost-of-living increases should make tough decisions and provide enough savings to hire at least some of those officers.

But that is for the mayor. Monday is all about Diaz who has the requisite skills, but now must prove himself by providing all around better police service to residents throughout the city.

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