Police commander demoted over Seattle protest blames racism

A recently demoted Seattle police commander is suing the city of Seattle and interim police Chief Adrian Diaz, alleging discrimination and unfair blame for a flashpoint "pink umbrella incident" during police clashes with racial justice demonstrators.

Capt. Steve Hirjak contends in his lawsuit, filed in King County Superior Court this week, that Diaz made him the scapegoat for the misconduct of another commander and punished him unfairly compared to other white officials, The Seattle Times reported. That commander, Lt. John Brooks, ordered riot-gear-clad officers to unleash tear gas and blast balls into a crowd on June 1, 2020.

The incident — a moment in Seattle’s George Floyd demonstrations captured on video and shared across social media — erupted near the department’s East Precinct after an officer’s tug of war with a protester over a pink umbrella. The clash drew public outrage and led to an investigation by the city’s police watchdog group.

The city’s Office of Police Accountability found Brooks broke department crowd dispersal protocols by ordering the heavy-handed tactics against a largely nonviolent crowd.

Diaz overruled OPA’s recommendations and blamed and demoted Hirjak, a 27-year officer and the department’s first Asian American assistant chief, who was the city’s overall incident commander for the protests.

"Defendants discriminatorily demoted Mr. Hirjak … from his position as an Assistant Chief back to the rank of Captain, treating him differently than similarly situated White officers," according to the lawsuit, filed by attorney Toby Marshall. "This demotion resulted in lower pay, loss of reputation, diminution of future career opportunities, and emotional distress."

Dan Nolte, a spokesperson for the city attorney’s office, said Hirjak’s claims are being fully investigated. "The City takes its obligation to provide a workplace free of harassment and discrimination seriously," he told the newspaper in a statement.

Hirjak’s suit contends Diaz and former Police Chief Carmen Best falsely blamed and mistreated him multiple times while ignoring and promoting other white commanders who engaged in improper conduct during the tumultuous period.

The lawsuit cites multiple examples of such disparate treatment. It says Brooks, who, besides being found solely responsible for the improper orders during the pink umbrella incident, also racked up 14 misconduct complaints during the protests. Nonetheless, he was promoted to captain, the lawsuit says.

And, under the command of Assistant Chief Thomas Mahaffey, whom Best chose to replace Hirjak as incident commander during the protests, "SPD was held in contempt of court on four separate occasions for the use of tear gas," the suit said.

The lawsuit’s allegations largely echo those in a $5.48 million damages claim Hirjak filed against the city in July, which gave the city and Diaz an August deadline to agree to mediate Diaz’s claims. Under state law, damage claims must be filed at least 60 days before a government entity can be sued.

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