By Paul Kiefer
In a press conference Tuesday morning that she insisted was not “a wake,” Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best said she is stepping down on September 2 because, in her words, “When it’s time, it’s time.”
Best announced her resignation to SPD’s sworn and civilian staff on Monday, shortly after the Seattle City Council voted to approve cuts to the Police Department’s budget that are supposed to be first step in a larger effort to shift resources away from traditional policing and towards community-based alternatives. Those cuts are meant to reduce the police force by roughly 100 officers (although many of those cuts will be through attrition) and cut the salaries of SPD’s command staff, including Best. After some debate about the optics of reducing the chief’s salary by nearly 40 percent, to $171,000, the council voted to cut is from $294,000 to $275,000.
Best said she felt that the council was targeting her personally, which she said she took as a sign that she could no longer effectively lead the department. “At some point, every leader has to recognize when you can’t move the needle forward for the men and women in the organization,” she said. “I don’t want the animus that has been directed at me to affect the people who work for me. Targeting my command staff and their pay felt very vindictive and very punitive.”
Best has consistently claimed that any layoffs would have to target the most junior officers—a more diverse group than SPD as a whole—in order to avoid age and race discrimination against white officers who have been on the force longer, and she cited this as another key factor in her decision. She also called the council’s plan for downsizing the department “duplicitous,” pointing to the council’s $1.6 million investment last year in SPD’s efforts to hire a more diverse class of recruits. “Less than a year later, we’re told to turn them all away,” she said.
Mayor Jenny Durkan took the podium after Best to offer the chief an emotional goodbye, praising her as “the right person to help reimagine policing in this city.” Durkan’s portrayal of Best as a model reformer is not entirely surprising—driven together by ongoing protests against SPD policies in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, the two have worked together closely for the past few months—but it is a remarkable turnaround from the 2018 police chief selection process, when Durkan didn’t even include then-interim chief Best as one of the three finalists.
Like Best, Durkan also directed harsh criticism at the city council for their approach to reconfiguring the SPD budget, placing the greatest emphasis on her claim that the council actively avoided hearing input from Best. “It has been mystifying to watch city council plow ahead without talking to her, consulting with her, or listening to her pleas to be thoughtful,” Durkan said. City council member Lisa Herbold points to budget policy, established by the council and executive, that prevents department heads from consulting the council about their budget during the budget process.
In her response to Best’s resignation and sense that the council had not shown her respect, Herbold—the council’s public safety committee chair— offered an apology. “I am deeply and sincerely sorry that the Chief feels Council’s actions have been disrespectful toward individual officers, and that our journey to reimagine community safety has been personally directed at her,” Herbold said in a statement.
But Herbold also pushed back on some of Best’s past claims that the council treated her unfairly. “After the first weekend of demonstrations, after the Chief addressed the Council, she told me that the Council had disrespected her in questioning her in committee about the actions of the police,” Herbold recalled. “Indeed, it is the Council’s job to ask questions.”
“You know what a Black city council member would have done? They would have held a press conference, even if they disagreed with the Chief, and asked why the council wasn’t consulting with the Chief.” — Community Police Commission member Rev. Harriett Walden
Other council members who voted for the cut to Best’s salary stood by their votes by expressing regret over Best’s departure. In an interview, city council member Tammy Morales said “the work that the council has been doing the past two months is not personal,” but added that while “it is important that the chief of police is responsible for the behavior of SPD during the George Floyd protests, it’s hard to see a woman of color in a leadership position make this decision. I think the city will lose out for not having somebody like her leading.”
In separate statements today, the three council members who did not vote for the pay cut— Debora Juarez, Alex Pedersen and Andrew Lewis – echoed some of Best’s criticisms. Juarez, who was not present for yesterday’s vote, was the harshest in her rebuke of her colleagues, writing that “Chief Best’s resignation is a wake-up call for the Council and the Mayor’s office that we must work cooperatively to re-envision public safety.” Juarez also placed some responsibility for Best’s resignation on demonstrators, adding, “it’s also a reminder to the public that their actions have consequences too. Harassment and intimidation are not social justice tools.”
“We know that only deep structural change—not the resignation and replacement of any single person—will protect Black lives and stop racist policing.”—Statement from Decriminalize Seattle
Juarez is the only council member who has refused meet with Every Day March demonstrators who have protested outside the homes of council members and other officials; when the marchers attempted to visit Chief Best’s home in Snohomish, they were turned away by a brigade of residents, at least one of them armed. Best later used the police department’s website to denounce the protesters and applaud her neighbors.
Community members had a mix of reactions to Best’s resignation. Reverend Harriett Walden, a member of the Community Policing Commission from its outset and a Best supporter, said the inexperienced, “anti-Black” council refused to collaborate with Best and helped drive her away. “This is the first time in 50 years that we haven’t had a Black person on the council and we’re supposed to be all right with that,” Walden said after the press conference. (Bruce Harrell, the council’s last Black member, was replaced by a Latinx woman, Tammy Morales.) “You know what a Black city council member would have done? They would have held a press conference, even if they disagreed with the Chief, and asked why the council wasn’t consulting with the Chief.”
In a statement released this afternoon, Black Lives Matter Seattle-King County seemed to agree with Walden’s assessment. “It does nothing to further our fight for authentic police accountability and the safety of Black lives that the first Black woman to hold the position of Chief of Police of the Seattle Police Department has been forced out of her job by the Seattle City Council. Racism is racism,” representatives of the organization wrote. “We demand transparency and accountability for the series of actions and inactions that led to Chief Best’s resignation. And we demand a successor that serves Black Lives.”
Decriminalize Seattle, which has been a prominent influence in the council’s recent decision-making, did not attribute Best’s resignation to racism on the council. Nor did they celebrate it as a victory. “Our goal has never been to oust Chief Best,” the group’s leadership wrote on their Facebook page this afternoon. “We know that only deep structural change—not the resignation and replacement of any single person—will protect Black lives and stop racist policing.”
When Best’s resignation takes effect on September 2nd, Durkan has chosen Deputy Chief Adrian Diaz—until recently the assistant chief responsible for the department’s collaborative policing bureau—to become the interim chief. During the press conference today, Durkan announced that she will not launch a search for a new permanent police chief this year, citing the tensions between her office and the city council and the “infuriating” cuts to the department’s budget. “If we started a search right now, I doubt that we could attract the candidates that Seattle deserves,” she said, “because they don’t know what they’re applying for.”