By Eric M. Johnson
SEATTLE (Reuters) - Seattle's police chief, who had been tasked with shepherding court-monitored reforms as the force works to rebuild its public image, said on Monday he had planned to retire after a three-year tenure.
John Diaz, a 33-year veteran of the Seattle police department and its police chief since 2010, will step down in May and be replaced on an interim basis by Assistant Police Chief Jim Pugel.
Diaz, who said he had always planned to retire this year, had faced a delicate balancing act trying to reconcile often competing demands from the mayor and the police department.
"It's been a very long career," Diaz said.
Diaz's resignation comes at a pivotal time for the force in Washington state's largest city, which averted a federal civil rights lawsuit by agreeing last year to reform its tactics in a plan overseen by an independent, court-appointed monitor. Diaz, a Latino, was to be a steward of the reforms.
The Justice Department concluded in a 2011 report that Seattle officers had displayed a pattern of using excessive force between 2009 and April 2011. In one high-profile case in 2010, officers shot and killed an inebriated Native American woodcarver.
"The department is poised to move forward at this point," Diaz told a news conference with Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn on Monday. "Our reform efforts are in place, our structure is in place."
Seattle police are operating under a reform plan that covers use of force, police stops and work bias. The Justice Department report said there were deficiencies in oversight, policies and training for officers on how and when to use force in the Pacific Northwest city.
Last month, a federal judge approved an outline for early reforms, such as officer training.
In 2010, Diaz replaced former Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske, now the Obama administration's drug czar. McGinn said the search for Diaz's replacement would likely take months.
"It's been a challenging and turbulent time for our Seattle police department," McGinn said, but he added that Diaz's "achievements have been considerable."
McGinn said major crime was down since Diaz took the helm and was now at a 55-year low.
Pugel, the assistant chief of the Criminal Investigations Bureau, has held posts in various divisions including homicide.
(Reporting By Eric M. Johnson; Editing by Cynthia Johnston)