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Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best says City Council drove her decision to abruptly retire

Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best holds a news conference in front of the East Precinct on Monday, June 29, 2020 after an early-morning shooting left one person dead and another injured in front of the station. Best wrote a letter to the Seattle City Council Sunday after protesters showed up outside her Snohomish County home Saturday night. (Mike Siegel/The Seattle Times/TNS)

Police Chief Carmen Best’s decision to abruptly retire next month was driven by a City Council that didn’t consult her as they sought to cut the Police Department’s budget this summer and that showed a lack of respect for the department’s employees, Best said Tuesday.

In a news conference with Mayor Jenny Durkan, Best said she realized she couldn’t bring herself to carry out officer layoffs the council unanimously voted for Monday. The chief had opposed the move, warning a rule mandating layoffs by reverse seniority would result in new, diverse officers losing jobs. Council members had asked her to pursue a waiver allowing out-of-order layoffs, arguing cops with sustained misconduct complaints should be let go first.

Flanked by Durkan and Deputy Chief Adrian Diaz, whom Durkan will appoint as interim chief, Best read a thank-you email she had received from a recently hired Black officer who she described as a “great young man.”

“He is one of the people that will probably not keep a job here,” Best said. “And that, for me, I’m done. I can’t do it.”

The chief’s news, initially announced in a message to police employees Monday night, came in the wake of protests against police brutality in Seattle and near her Snohomish County home; criticism over the city’s repeated use of weapons like tear gas and blast balls at protests; and a decision by council members to reduce her command staff’s wages and her own salary as part of a push to reallocate the Police Department’s budget to community solutions.

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She described the Black Lives Matter protests that erupted in May after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis as challenging and criticized the salary reductions as personal, vindictive, punitive and even illegal; leaders of no other departments were targeted by the council, she pointed out.

But Best said Tuesday she decided to step down mostly because she didn’t agree with the council’s approach to defunding, and because her relationship with the council had soured, suggesting Diaz might have more luck.

“This was a decision I wrestled with, but it’s time,” she said, calling her current job “the dream of a lifetime.”

The chief seemed almost upbeat as she thanked supporters and contemplated taking “some time for myself.” She said she made the call to leave her position over the weekend. Monday’s council votes were somewhat anti-climatic; council members had already voted in committee last week.

“This is not about the money and certainly isn’t about the demonstrators” who were blocked from her home by neighbors, Best said. “Be real. I have a thicker skin than that. It really is about the overwhelming lack of respect for the officers, the men and women who work so hard day in and day out.”

Council members voted to reduce Seattle’s force of about 1,400 cops by up to 100. Durkan has said out-of-order layoffs would require union bargaining. “I just wasn’t willing to go down that road,” Best said Tuesday.

In an interview, Councilmember Dan Strauss called Best’s retirement a “tremendous loss.” Council members agree that new, diverse cops shouldn’t be let go and acknowledged that conducting layoffs out of order would entail “really tough work,” he said. But that work should be done, Strauss said.

Most council members also voted Monday to reduce the Police Department’s command staff pay for the rest of the year, dropping Best’s wages from about $24,000 to $23,000 per month and cutting the wages of her command staff by larger amounts, percentage-wise. The moves are mean to save $345,000.

The council did consult with the Police Department this summer, Strauss noted, requesting and receiving data and input through staff members, per protocol. The council member said he spoke briefly with Best by phone last month and urged her to call him anytime. “I always pick up the phone,” he said.

Durkan heaped praise on the chief, calling her a role model with courage, compassion, grit and a “megawatt smile” who could have helped Seattle respond to the Black Lives Matter movement and move ahead, given her policing resume and life experience. She also expressed confidence in Diaz, touting his strong community ties.

“My heart is obviously heavy to lose her and I will freely admit I wish she was staying,” Durkan said about Best, praising the chief’s leading role in a years long police reform effort that some activists contend has been inadequate.

The mayor won’t begin a search for Best’s permanent replacement until next year, she said. She said the council must hammer out a 2021 budget; until then, candidates “wouldn’t know the job they’re applying for,” she said.

Though the mayor said she wants to start collaborating more with council members to revamp how Seattle provides public safety services, she also sharply attacked them Tuesday. “They wanted to micromanage” the budget this summer “and play mini police chief. Cut here. Cut there,” she said.

Diaz described Best as a mentor and vowed to work to improve the Police Department. “I know we need to rebuild the trust” with many, he said.

In a KING 5 poll of Seattle adults in June, Best’s approval rating was 48%, ahead of Durkan’s 43% and the council’s 39%. While 24% of respondents said they thought Best should resign, 51% said they thought she should stay.

Leaders at City Hall and around Seattle reacted Monday night and Tuesday morning to the news about Best.

Councilmember Alex Pedersen, who voted last week to protect Best and her command staff from the pay cuts proposed by Councilmember Kshama Sawant, said he objected to the choice that a majority of his colleagues made.

“I am deeply saddened by the resignation of our Police Chief Carmen Best,” Pedersen said in a statement. “While a majority of City Council voted on August 5 to cut Carmen Best’s salary, it’s important to note that Councilmembers (Debora) Juarez, (Andrew) Lewis, and I did NOT vote to cut her salary. I did not support suddenly cutting the salary of the first Black police chief in Seattle’s history and the diverse, experienced team that she picked.”

He added, “While I believe we should take a hard look at reducing excessive city government pay during budget deficits, I believe our entire City Council should be more thoughtful and methodical so we avoid unintended consequences.”

Lewis issued a similar statement. Describing Best as a longtime friend, Juarez said her resignation should be “a wake-up call for the Council and the Mayor’s office that we must work cooperatively to re-envision public safety.”

Councilmember Lisa Herbold, who supported reducing the command staff’s wages, called Best’s departure “a staggering loss to leaders of the Black and Brown community.” During times of social unrest, Herbold said in a statement, “police chiefs are often in no-win situations,” having pledged to support their officers and also to advance calls for change.

“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. “The Council is in a difficult position as well. … We have to be able to ask hard questions about the SPD, and engage in difficult debate about the appropriate role of policing, the SPD budget, and SPD’s recent actions in response to demonstrations against violent policing here in Seattle.”

In a joint statement, Council President M. Lorena González and Councilmembers Teresa Mosqueda and Tammy Morales thanked Best “for her dedication to the people of Seattle during her twenty-eight years of public service” and said they were “saddened to hear of her sudden departure.”

But they vowed to press on with Police Department cuts. “The Council will remain focused on the need to begin the process of transforming community safety in our City. This historic opportunity to transition the SPD from reform to transformation will continue,” they said.

Sawant didn’t immediately comment.

In an interview Tuesday, the Rev. Harriett Walden, a longtime police-accountability advocate and Best supporter, noted the council began 2020 with no Black representative for the first time in more than 50 years. A Black representative likely would have stuck up for Best, Walden said.

“She was disrespected … in a way they would have never treated a white woman,” Walden added, blaming Sawant for leading a charge to undermine Best and González for not “holding the line.”

King County Equity Now, a community coalition that’s been pushing to defund the Police Department, wrote on Twitter that “Black representation in leadership is critical & necessary, but only in-so-far as it works to upend the status quo & improve the health, safety, & equity of Black communities.”

The Police Department “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,” the group wrote.

The Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce slammed the council.

“The Seattle City Council chose divisive rhetoric over responsible governance and it cost our city a respected leader,” Chamber spokesperson Alicia Teel said in a statement.

“Instead of taking the opportunity to constructively advance meaningful reform with Chief Carmen Best, the first Black woman to lead the Seattle Police Department, council members doubled down on misleading promises and petty, performative actions,” Teel added.

In a statement, Black Lives Matter Seattle-King County, a social-justice nonprofit that has been among many groups involved in recent protests, described Best’s retirement as a loss.

“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,” the group’s statement said.

“We demand the Seattle City Council stop prioritizing performative action that solely suggests the appearance of change. 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.”

Nikkita Oliver, a lawyer, educator, activist and 2017 mayoral candidate active with King County Equity Now, shared a different perspective.

“This has never been about an individual figurehead of the police. This is about how the entire institution of policing is racist & continues to fail at what it purports to be it’s #1 priority — public safety. This is about real public safety & health 4 Black & brown communities,” Oliver wrote on Twitter.

“Best chose to be Chief of an institution that has perpetuated racist policies & practices & perpetuated much harm on many communities,” she added. “Not to mention the violent policing of the recent protests. She could have chose to whistleblow but she protected the status quo. She chose.”

Former King County Executive Ron Sims was critical of the council.

“As a Black man I found the Seattle City Council’s treatment of Chief Best to be incredibly offensive,” Sims wrote on Twitter. “They’ll say they are liberals. It did not give them license to publicly ‘humiliate’ the first African American Woman to be Chief of Police in Seattle’s history.”

Best, 55, became Seattle’s interim police chief early in 2018, when Kathleen O’Toole stepped down. A Durkan selection team initially passed over Best for the permanent job, choosing other finalists. But a backlash among community leaders and some police officers helped lead the mayor to appoint Best. The council voted unanimously to confirm her.

Hired by the Police Department in 1992, Best completed a variety of assignments earlier in her career, including stints in patrol, school safety, media relations and community outreach.

She also worked as a patrol supervisor and operations lieutenant, and held command positions in the department’s narcotics unit and its robbery, gangs and fugitives unit.

Best briefly served as South Precinct commander before a promotion to assistant chief of criminal investigations. Shortly after O’Toole was appointed chief by then-Mayor Ed Murray in 2014, O’Toole named Best deputy chief.

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© 2020 The Seattle Times

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.