Embattled Seattle Chief of Police Carmen Best announced she is stepping down in a morning press conference nearly two years to the day of her 2018 swearing-in ceremony with Mayor Jenny Durkan at City Hall.
“As the new police Chief, I’ll continue to lead our department through a culture of continuous improvement and innovation,” Best said at the time.
Little did she know.
Tuesday morning, Best said it was time to go — but it’s not because her salary will be cut, the months of protest, or losing the debate over the police budget battle. Best said she is leaving because of the “animus” against her exhibited by the Seattle City Council and protesters. She put on a brave face over the decision.
“That’s not being defeated,” Best said. “That’s leadership and that’s being smart.”
Monday, the council approved a series of cuts and budget shifts to begin what officials say is a process of defunding the Seattle Police Department and shifting the city to a “community-led public safety model.”
A mayor who opposes the cuts and possible legal battles await.
Best will not stick around to see the changes through. The first Black woman to lead the department. and a career law enforcement officer rose through the ranks at SPD with wide support in Black and faith communities, her resignation is effective September 2nd. Deputy Chief Adrian Diaz will step in as the interim chief of police as the process to find a new chief plays out.
Tuesday, Best said she could not be part of layoffs she says will start with the department’s newest — and, therefore, most diverse — recruits.
“This is not about the money. It certainly isn’t about the demonstrators,” Best said. “I have a lot thicker skin than that. It’s about the overarching lack of respect for officers.”
Mayor Durkan, meanwhile, levied heavy criticism on the city council. “They wanted to micromanage and play mini police chief,” Durkan said. “Cut here, cut there, do this, do that. It showed a complete lack of respect and frankly a misunderstanding of how the department even operates.”
Despite the harsh attacks and the mayor repeating her assertion that the council had “targeted” the chief, both Durkan and Best stopped short of calling the council’s vote racist. Best would not go there, saying she is “not using that harsh word,” Durkan would only say the budget process was unlike any other she’s seen.
UPDATE: Activists responded to the idea that Best had been personally targeted.
“This has never been about an individual figurehead of the police,” activist Nikkita Oliver said. “This is about how the entire institution of policing is racist and continues to fail at what it purports to be it’s #1 priority—public safety. This is about real public safety & health (for) Black & brown communities.”
The King County Equity Now coalition also weighed in on Best’s decision, saying SPD “has a long & storied history of anti-Black racial violence.”
“Unfortunately—but predictably—this violence did not end under Chief Best. That’s because the task of rooting out anti-Black racism from the police department is too large for any one person.”
UPDATE 8/12/20: A full statement on the Best resignation from King County Equity Now and Decriminalize Seattle has been released. “The Seattle Police Department – and our city’s entire approach to achieving real public safety – requires wholesale structural change,” it reads. “Fortunately, there is a community-driven process under way to address this very issue.”
The Seattle Police Department has a long and storied history of anti-Black violence. Unfortunately, but rather predictably, this violence did not relent under Police Chief Carmen Best. Racism is built into the very structure of policing. The impossible task of rooting out anti-Black racism from the Seattle Police Department was always too large for any one person.
Chief Best’s public resignation comes soon after the Seattle City Council’s first votes towards divesting from SPD and investing in a new paradigm that values all Black lives. Our goal has never been to oust Chief Best. Rather, we have organized to draw attention to the limits and false promises of individualized reforms for ending police violence. We know that only deep structural change – not the resignation and replacement of any single person – will protect Black lives and stop racist policing. This fight is about rethinking how we achieve public safety in this city for Black communities, and acknowledging that continuing to pour money into policing will not get us there.
Our movement will remain centered on the lived experiences and conditions of Black communities. Accordingly, while Black representation in leadership positions is critical and necessary, it must be meaningfully connected to improving the lived experiences and conditions of the Black community.
We know that anti-racism is not about diversifying the police and lifting up Black women or anyone else to head SPD. We celebrate the movement in defense of Black lives and we recommit to the work ahead to generate safety for all people in Seattle. The Seattle Police Department – and our city’s entire approach to achieving real public safety – requires wholesale structural change. Fortunately, there is a community-driven process under way to address this very issue. We encourage the Mayor and Council to endorse the overwhelmingly-supported BIPOC-led community process towards true public safety for all Seattle residents.
Best and Mayor Durkan fought the defund effort through a summer of protest in Seattle following the police killing of George Floyd as Black Lives Matter demonstrators and community groups demanded a reduction of at least 50% from SPD’s budget, a call that received support from a majority of the council, and, many agreed, could help set Seattle on a path to changing the way big cities police themselves.
The duo countered with a proposal to move millions out of SPD by shifting 911 operations out of the department. Activists and city councilmembers said Best and Durkan’s proposed cuts fell far short of needed change.
I know the SPD is in good hands with Interim Chief Adrian Diaz. pic.twitter.com/80J5SfWUM9
— Chief Carmen Best (@carmenbest) August 11, 2020
From the onset when the mayor did not initially select her as a candidate for the job, the Best and Durkan team hasn’t been the smoothest pairing. Through this summer, Durkan often found herself jumping into press conferences during the city’s heaviest weeks of protests to soften or round out Best’s defense of her department’s actions and aggressive crowd control tactics.
Durkan was also forced to bite her tongue when Chief Best refused to take responsibility for abandoning the East Precinct in early June opening the way to the formation of the Capitol Hill protest zone and CHOP camp.
Best said Tuesday she does not consider the CHOP episode a failure, and the controversial police tactics used during Capitol Hill protests, ahd the abandonment of the East Precinct “worked out the way it should have.”
“Everyone knows what happened,” Best said. “Where it started and where it ended were two different places.” Best said the protest zone did not begin like “what it devolved to.”
“After that, we found it to be necessary to remove the CHOP,” she said.
What followed were more weeks of flash bangs, pepper spray, tear gas, aggressive arrests, and rubber bullets countered by massive crowds and bouts of property damage. The East Precinct was reclaimed and remains fenced but is again opened for SPD use.
“Nobody got hurt. Things are operational,” Best said. “I’m not looking back. I’m looking forward.”
In recent weeks, the tumult of the city transitioned to Zoom calls and videoconferencing as the city council pounded out a plan to begin defunding the department. In the process, the council also cut Best and her SPD command’s salaries. Protesters also did not let up. In early August, demonstrators took their message to Best’s Snohomish County home.
Best announced her retirement plans in a letter to the department after her decision was leaked following Monday’s city council vote to Seattle conservative media outlets.
To the Women and Men of the Seattle Police Department –
I wanted to notify you that I will be retiring from the Seattle Police Department, effective September 2nd, 2020. I wanted you to hear this from me, but some media have reached this conclusion on their own.
This was a difficult decision for me, but when it’s time, it’s time.
I want to thank Mayor Durkan for her continuous support through good times and tough times.
I am confident the department will make it through these difficult times. You truly are the best police department in the country, and please trust me when I say, the vast majority of people in Seattle support you and appreciate you.
I am impressed daily at your skill, your compassion, and your dedication. I am thankful my command team has agreed to continue serving the department, and that Mayor Durkan has appointed Deputy Chief Adrian Diaz as the interim Chief of Police. Chief Diaz shares my commitment to this department and has the trust of the community.
I look forward to seeing how this department moves forward through the process of re-envisioning public safety. I relish the work that will be done by all of you.
After more than 28 years, I am so thankful for the time I spent at SPD. You are my family. You will always be in my heart. We have had tough times before and come out better on the other side. I am glad I pushed through each of those tough times with you.
I am grateful for the opportunity to have served as your Chief.
Remember to take care of one another.
Chief of Police
UPDATE 8/11/2020 2:40 PM: The Trump administration has been speaking out against the police defunding movement. Attorney General Bill Barr has weighed in on Best’s exit. “Her leadership and demonstrated commitment to her oath of office reflected all that is good about America’s law enforcement. In the face of mob violence, she drew the line in the sand and said, ‘Enough!’, working tirelessly to save lives, protect her officers, and restore stability to Seattle. Her example should be an inspiration to all who respect the rule of law and cherish safety and security in their communities,” Barr’s statement reads. “This experience should be a lesson to state and local leaders about the real costs of irresponsible proposals to defund the police.”
Durkan will now have her pick of new candidates for chief but she says that process will not begin until next year as the city’s next budget process — and likely further battles over how much we spend on SPD — continues this fall.
Diaz, meanwhile, is a veteran officer with experience in SPD’s efforts to recruit a more diverse police force. Tuesday, he kept things straightforward and as he thanked the major for the opportunity even as he will oversee cuts that will include layoffs of around 100 officers.
“I’ve got to move the department forward,” Diaz said. “These are going to be rough times.”
The cycle of a big city police chief runs quickly. After only three years on the job, Ed Murray-selected Kathleen O’Toole stepped down from her post as Seattle’s police chief when Durkan took office in late 2017. The mayor credited O’Toole with helping to guide SPD reform following the Justice Department consent decree that came out of an eight-month DOJ investigation of Seattle policing released in winter 2011 that revealed troubling findings about the department’s use of force. SPD’s overhaul included a DOJ-approved use of force policy.
Chief Best inherited a department still struggling with that transition and ongoing labor maneuverings with the powerful Seattle Police Officer Guild.
Now, as the city council has forced a different kind of change on the department, Best is also stepping away.
Durkan’s message Tuesday was a message of regret. “Make no mistake about it, Carmen Best was the right person to help reimagine policing in this city,” she said.
“To the residents and businesses, young people and city council,” the mayor said, “I hope we can find a better path, a better path forward than the absolutely break down of collaboration and civil dialogue we have seen in recent weeks.”
Interim Chief Diaz, meanwhile, still faces ongoing protests including another demonstration Monday night on Capitol Hill in Cal Anderson and outside the East Precinct. The SPD response to these latest rounds of marches has been different as officers are encountering smaller groups and repeated property damage and vandalism. Sunday night, a bout of broken glass on First Hill brought a swift and loud police response involving SPD vehicles and multiple arrests. Monday night, the sirens and a large showing of police cars also arrived on the scene of the East Precinct protest. There were no reported arrests.
Couple scenes from #seattleprotests last night at the East Precinct. After a small group of protestors blocked the side entrance to the station, SPD responded with a large force of cars with lights & sirens. SPD retreated after protestors approached them slowly with raised hands. pic.twitter.com/rXcFJNtGzK
— matt (@mmitgang) August 11, 2020