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As Carmen Best becomes Seattle police chief, questions persist about unusual process

caption: Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best smiles during a press conference on Tuesday, July 17, 2018, at City Hall in Seattle.
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Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best smiles during a press conference on Tuesday, July 17, 2018, at City Hall in Seattle.
KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

As Carmen Best enters the confirmation process to become Seattle’s next police chief, she told the City Council Wednesday how her profession has transformed since she entered the force 26 years ago.

Reducing crime and disorder remains the Seattle Police Department’s core mission, Best said, but these days that mission includes alternative programs like peacemaking circles with young offenders.

“If 26 years ago someone had told me we would be sitting down with young people,” passing a feather or other item to indicate who may speak, “I wouldn’t have believed it,” Best said, “but that’s where we are now. We know we have to engage.”

She said recruiting more officers will be a top priority. She hopes to finalize a new labor contract soon with the Seattle Police Officers Guild, and said higher salaries are needed to woo applicants.

Best said the department has tailored its recruitment messaging to attract those who are “service-minded.”

“Our recruiting video, for example, used to always be somebody serving a search warrant or something like that,” she said. “Now we make sure we show officers playing with kids, out at the park.”

After a public hearing August 1, Best could be confirmed by the City Council in the next month. She would become the first African-American woman to lead the department.

Her confirmation will not end scrutiny of the tumultuous hiring process, which saw Best excluded from the final round, only to be added after public outcry.

Enrique Gonzalez served on the search committee and co-chairs the Community Police Commission. He said Best was the strongest candidate for police chief, and he doesn’t want the hiring process to cast a shadow over her candidacy.

“Because the process has been so murky and so confusing, it leaves room naturally for people to want to say a lot of different reasons as to why she might have been reinserted into the process," he said. "Those questions are legitimate for any candidate.”

Gonzalez said the Community Police Commission will delve into the episode in an upcoming report, with recommendations to make sure future hires are more transparent. “It’s our job as an oversight entity to really review how this process has taken place and improve it as we go forward,” he said.

In her application, Best said that although she has served as interim police chief since January, she “was directed by the executive to not make large-scale changes.”

If confirmed, she said she would maintain compliance with the federal consent decree, create a bureau focused on community policing and outreach, and routinely review SPD policies on immigration, “to ensure they are reflecting Seattle’s welcoming city values.”

Seattle City Councilmember Lorena González emphasized that she doesn’t want Best to take a harder line against people who are homeless.

“The police department has an equal obligation and duty to protect the unhoused as they do to protect the housed,” Councilmember Gonzalez said.

“We’re not going to criminalize homelessness,” Best said. “We’re not going to criminalize people because they don’t have a shelter and housing. Although sometimes I think there’s a segment that’s uncomfortable with that and would expect that to happen, but that’s not what we’re going to do.”

Best said her officers will keep working with social service providers and others to do outreach. She said because of funding constraints, she has been pulling officers from patrol to participate in city navigation teams.

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