Adrian Z. Diaz knows Seattle’s neighborhoods better than most. A 20-year veteran of the Seattle Police Department (SPD), he oversees SPD’s Community Outreach Program. That means he’s enmeshed in the work of improving outcomes for Seattle youth, from coordinating grassroots projects to facilitating national policy work.
Diaz discovered his passion for outreach work far outside Seattle’s city limits. While on a SPD trip to Peru in 2004, he saw firsthand the vital role Peruvian police played in keeping youth out of the country’s drug trade. His realization — that effective police work must remain closely tied to a community’s culture — inspired a new mission upon returning to Seattle. He sought opportunities to introduce youth to police work, including through Explorers, a youth police training program he took over in 2009 and still oversees. By 2014, the number of youth participating in Explorers had expanded by nearly sixfold, says Diaz.
Giving youth the opportunity learn about police work helps them see officers as allies rather than adversaries, he says. “We are experiencing a great divide in this country, a divide that can start to come together through understanding and conversation. It is more important than ever to learn from each other and to help solve our issues together.”
To that end, Diaz is active in national initiatives such as My Brother’s Keeper, Cities United and the National Forum on Youth Violence, along with Seattle programs that include the Seattle Youth Violence Prevention Initiative and Seattle Police Department’s Micro Community Policing Plans.
But the married father of two isn’t behind a desk all day. His favorite work is to help build connections between police officers and the citizens they serve. “I try to help kids make the positive changes and positive choices, creating programs that connect, so that we’re a part of the community, not apart from the community.”
What did you want to be when you grew up?
I never had an inkling of police work; I have a martial arts background and coached wrestling for 15 years. I love judo and kickboxing — being on the mat helps build discipline into my life.
What’s the most misunderstood part of your job?
As police officers, we don’t sometimes understand the problems faced by members of our communities, and sometimes the community doesn’t understand the difficulties of our job. A big part of what I do is to create dialogues to help people understand one another.
What book saved you or changed your life?
I love history. Book VII of The Republic by Plato shows how our beliefs are shaped by our environment. In the book, the guardians spend their life trying to make a difference for those who are stuck. That speaks to what I want to do with my life.
If you could have one superpower, what would it be and why?
I’d want the ability to stop time. As parents and as police officers, we have very little time to make decisions.
On a rainy Pacific Northwest morning, what gets you motivated and out of bed?
I love my work and I’ve seen it grow. Now the department has staffed officers to do some of what I used to do. I’ve seen how much difference one officer can make, and that’s what keeps me going.
If you could dine with anyone, living or dead, whom would that be and why?
My great-grandmother Refugio has an interesting story: When she was 18, she was kidnapped by my great-grandfather Juan, a worker on her wealthy father’s agave plantation in Mexico. Her father put a bounty on Juan’s head, but they were never captured. Refugio felt that she’d dishonored her family, so she stayed with my great-grandfather, and they ended up in Texas. I’d love to meet her and hear more about how my family came to be.