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Carmen Best and the big picture: Not 'just a story about a police chief resigning'

caption: Carmen Best was Seattle Police Chief from 2018 to 2020.
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Carmen Best was Seattle Police Chief from 2018 to 2020.

On Tuesday, one day after the Seattle City Council voted to cut 100 jobs from the police department, Police Chief Carmen Best officially announced her retirement.

Chief Best commented that relations with the City Council played a factor, saying that her leave is more about disrespect shown to her and Seattle police. She said that actions by the Council felt personal.

Chief Best also commented that she did not want to lay off newly-hired police officers because of the Council's recent cuts.

“The council gave us $1.6 million to make sure that we hired the best and the brightest and the most diverse, and brought them on, and less than a year later, we're going to just turn them all away. It feels very duplicitous. Honestly, I just, I have my convictions. I cannot do that.”

Jenna Hanchard is a Seattle-based journalist, and the host and producer of the podcast Lola's Ink, which explores stories about Black girl liberation. She spoke with KUOW's Paige Browning about Best's resignation.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Hanchard says this isn't just a story about a police chief resigning. Hanchard says that black and brown people are often put into leadership positions with the expectation that the position will make the structural change, and it won't.

Hanchard: Most institutions should question this kind of lie that society has told us, which is that once you get in there, the work is going to be on you, and if you work hard enough, you, "Black and brown person," will be able to be here, with this title, and we will respect you, we will support you. You will be able to carry out the changes that you will be able to see.

I think as we've seen, not just with Carmen Best, but we've seen with Barack Obama, we've seen with Marilyn Mosby in Maryland in the wake of Freddie Gray, we've seen that it's very hard, in these positions of power, and it's very hard if you're a Black person, to challenge these institutions. So I think it should give people a really good story or anecdote to sit with on what exactly does it mean to create change?

How does the fact that Carmen Best was the first Black woman appointed as police chief play into this story?

I think we put a lot of emphasis on firsts, right? As if the achievement is really on the individual who kind of "pulled up their bootstraps," worked through the ranks, waited their time, and was kind of honorably appointed. When we know that the resistance that Black and brown people face within these institutions to make it into positions of power is really difficult, right? It's really hard. We're not just given these opportunities, we fight for these opportunities.

It's not about the first or even the second, but it's about what comes after the second what comes after the third, what kind of support is given to the first for them to be able to make that change within the department. It would be really, really hard for a Black woman within a kind of inherently racist institution, like a police department, to change that police department by herself.

When I watched the press conference today, I sensed a bit of grief. Especially when she got that email she talked about, from the Black police officer in the department who expressed that it had been difficult for him to get into the department, and once he got in, he was really happy that he was able to serve under her, and happy to be alive for Barack Obama, and that he may not be around after she left.

After that, she teared up a bit. And I sensed this bit of grief for the fact that it's really hard, as one person, to make that kind of change. That story could represent some of the change that society has promised us, that happens when we have representation, but also that it's not enough, that her being chief isn't enough.

We have seen Carmen Best give attention to police reform, give attention to hiring and recruiting people of color in the department. She talked a little bit Tuesday about worrying that some of those things she worked for might slip once she's gone. What does Carmen Best’s retirement mean for police reform in Seattle?

I hope people will look at the big picture, right? I hope people will look at the fact that this is an inherently racist system; that no matter who you swap out, if you're still policing in the same way, if you're still funding problematic systems within the same way, and not changing the way that you police communities, and approach this relationship between the state and the people, then you're going to continue to have these problems.

I really hope that people will look at this and say, "even if we get another Black woman, even if we get a third Black woman, what is going to change within the system to make this a space that treats Black and brown people within the city not only with dignity and respect, but keeps them alive?"

We're talking about people being kept alive within their communities. This is an issue of life or death. Right? This isn't just about who's the face of a department. This is about who can be tasked with keeping the community alive in their homes. That doesn't change with just one Black woman. Right? I hope that people will be able to step away from this and say, this is about institutional change. This is what people are protesting about. This is the truth that people are protesting about.

Lastly, there's been a lot of criticism about Chief Best’s leadership during the recent protests for racial justice, and the force used on people who are protesting. Would you expect any police chief to come under this sort of intense scrutiny, regardless of their race, or regardless of their gender?

I think that any person that is serving as the role of the chief of police is serving in the capacity to protect the state. She's not going to walk into that position (it would be revolutionary if she did) and say "Actually, I don't support the police department. Actually, I believe that it needs to be defunded. Actually, I believe that we shouldn't protect business over people." Right?

It would be hard to believe that you could occupy that position and have those thoughts, and that train of thinking. I think, again, it goes back to the institution itself, that whoever you put in that position is going to have a difficult time challenging those systems, because the police department in itself, its job, is to carry out those duties of the state. Right?

That's why I think the calls from local activists and local organizers and the work that local organizers have been doing for decades, that elders have been doing for decades, to change the way in which we police, those sorts of changes will last no matter who's at the helm. Right? That sort of approach to how we relate to the community will be long-lasting. That's the focus that we have to continue to revisit.

Listen to the interview by clicking the play button above.

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