Q&A with Seattle Police Chief Adrian Diaz on surveillance, downtown safety, and a tech wishlist

Seattle Police Chief Adrian Diaz. (SPD Photo)

From a crime standpoint, Seattle isn’t having a great year. The monthly average of violent crimes — including homicide, aggravated assault, rape, and robbery — are up 10% higher than they were in 2020, a rise from 371 cases to 408. Shootings are becoming increasingly regular.

Downtown Seattle is one of the neighborhoods showing the sharpest spikes in crime, just as it prepares for a return of thousands of tech company employees in the new year.

This begs the question: What is Seattle’s law enforcement going to do about crime, about the steep decline in available cops, and the host of other issues facing the city, from surveillance restrictions to changes in crime-fighting tech?

Seattle Police Chief Adrian Diaz joined GeekWire this week for a conversation about where he’d like to take the Seattle Police Department in the coming year. The answers below are edited for brevity and clarity. Watch the full interview below.

GeekWire: Chief Diaz, thank you very much for joining us. You’ve seen the sharp uptick in violent crime in Seattle — four shootings over the course of the past weekend. What would you tell the folks who are going to be returning to work in downtown, some of whom don’t feel that it’s a terribly safe place to go anymore?

Seattle Police Chief Adrian Diaz: We completely understand people’s concerns and we have been working with groups in the city on a recovery effort to ensure that our downtown is safe and vibrant. We’re trying to get as many people out and about. That is really what helps. That’s really the foundation of crime prevention. When we’re able to get more people out, interacting and shopping and doing different things, it actually helps keep some of the criminal element from seeing crimes of opportunity and really taking advantage of those.

GW: There have been issues regarding negotiations over body cam use. There have been issues regarding municipalities stepping back the use of facial recognition technology. How do you feel about the collection of data by police right now? Do you feel like it’s adequate to do sufficient policing in Seattle?

Diaz: It’s important that we look at new technology to try and make sure that our city is safe. One of the things that I am a big advocate for is ShotSpotter. It can help us shave minutes off our response time to shootings. It picks up sounds that are associated with gunshots. It’s not focused on people’s conversation, it’s not a big brother system. It’s very much focused on actual gunshots. That system is connected with our dispatch system. It’s actually picking it up, right when (the shooting) occurs and it really does create a lot more efficient response time to that specific area.

There’s technologies that we can look at that can create a better and more efficient response to addressing public safety issues. And that’s really what we want to be focused on. We want to make sure that even if we look at a technology, that we are mindful of the impacts it could create in our black and brown communities. We want to make sure that we have very strict restrictions and that we’re always auditing our efforts in how we use that level of technology.

GW: What’s your technology wish list?

Diaz: I mentioned ShotSpotter as one of them, something that I would be looking at and advocating for.

We have domestic threats against our city routinely. I do think that the use of cameras that can be helpful, not only for traffic but also other means.

But really what I’m focused on is things that make our investigations more efficient. Because we’re short officers, we’re having to find ways to process our records management system. We just updated that with a technology company.

Also, how do we create a more efficient online reporting system? Because of COVID, we are now taking 38-to-40% of our reports online. We want to make sure that it’s an easy system for community members to navigate. So we’re looking at that type of technology or software that allows us to be able to capture those types of reports as well.

A demonstrator in Seattle records police officers in riot gear. (Flickr Photo / Kelly Kline)

GW: You’re dealing with 300 fewer cops than you had pre-pandemic. How do you work on recruiting?

Diaz: That is the hard part of managing and leading during this time because we are doing everything we can to recruit and hire. We’re advocating and encouraging the City Council to pass incentives that we have put forward when it comes to recruiting and retention.

When you’re competing in a city like Seattle where you have a tech industry with Amazon and Microsoft and all these different companies — many people can work at one of those companies and work from home, making six figures. It’s very difficult to say, ‘hey, come become a Seattle police officer.’

When you look at people that are looking to join police departments across the country, people come to Seattle because of our national reputation and dealing with people in crisis and dealing with the rioting. We have really led the nation in many areas and we’re continuing to learn and adapt and evolve. We still have to adjust even from last year’s events, and the impact that we’ve had in the community from the riots.

That’s what makes the Seattle Police Department so special — we really have this growth mindset. We’re really focused on always adjusting and figuring out ways that we could be better. That’s what draws people to join us. But when you’re competing with other technology institutions, it’s very difficult when they have other incentives.

GW: Talk a little bit about outsourcing. There’s clearly a whole bunch of tasks that you probably would like to see and that (police officers) would like to see maybe taken off their plates. What would those tasks be?

Diaz: We took on a lot of work that other entities probably did because we’re a 24/7 organization. Can we not be involved in engaging in stuff related to homelessness? I think that there are better social services that can do a lot of that work.

We respond right now to almost 11,000 crisis calls a year. And we find ourselves in only about 1.5% that we actually use force. So we do a really good job of finding ways to de-escalate and getting people those services and resources that are needed, but I don’t think that we’re the best entity to do that type of work.

When I look at mental health, and I look at the capacity of the mental health system — they are at capacity. It’s going to take years for them to really kind of build up that ability to address it. So right now it is the police department doing that work. But I do see in the future, this is something that I would like for us to not necessarily be at the forefront of that.

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