Former Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best speaks plainly about being 'Black in Blue' in new book
Former Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best started her law enforcement career as the nation reacted to the brutal beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police officers in the early '90s.
She ended her career in 2020, just a few months after George Floyd was murdered by police in Minneapolis.
The intervening years were marked with too many instances of police violence against Black people to recall.
In her new book, Black in Blue: Lessons on Leadership, Breaking Barriers, and Racial Reconciliation, Best is open about the doubt she felt at times as a police officer and a Black woman, and as the first Black woman to lead the Seattle Police Department.
That doubt was affirmed during the summer of 2020 as hard charges were leveled against her by the community and even members of her own family.
She describes a difficult conversation with one of her daughters, an ardent supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement, who told her she was part of the problem because she was part of the police.
"I reminded her how many good men and women that she'd met that were police officers. ... So, she could acknowledge there are good officers. And I could acknowledge that the profession has work to do, and the number of Black people who are dying in these officer-involved shootings is too high."
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That’s one experience at the crossroads of race and police that Best relates in Black in Blue. And she doesn’t stop there.
The Council and Seattle's police chief
In 2018, she rose through the ranks in Seattle to lead the entire department as its police chief — the Black woman to ever do so. And in 2020, she stepped away amid protests for racial justice and political backlash at City Hall.
She says it was the right decision. She felt at the time the Seattle City Council was "just very vindictive, in my view."
Councilmember Kshama Sawant reiterated her opinion of Best in a statement after the chief's resignation, which a number of her Council colleagues and other officials lamented.
In Sawant's view, Best's retirement was a fitting result: “Like many of the other soon-to-be ex-police chiefs, Chief Best has repeatedly lashed out at the movement and its demands, calling the protests a ‘riot’ and blaming activists for police violence. She also directed her fire at the City Council for its passage of miniscule cuts to Seattle Police Department funding for the remainder of 2020, declaring that she was unwilling to carry them out. This meager 2 percent reduction in the police budget has fallen shockingly short of the 50 percent defunding promised only weeks before by 6 of the 8 Democrats, but it was too much for Best."
Indeed, it was. But Best says her relationship with the Council wasn't always this way. She recalls working together to approve a new police contract after years of discussion and negotiation. After it was approved by the Council, some members suddenly didn't like it, she recalls. She says they agreed about funding to recruit women and officers of color. Then members wanted to defund the police in response to the summer protests.
“I was not going to be the first African American woman police chief in an organization that ended up with less women and less people of color because of Council decisions," she says of her decision to resign amid the tension. "And I didn’t want to be the scapegoat for when crime went up.”
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Crime has gone up since then.
Overall, gun violence in Seattle is on the rise. There were 420 gunfire cases in all of 2020, and 370 such incidents have occurred as of August 31. Police say they're concerned the city is on track to record more shootings in 2021 year than the previous year.
Best has been adamant about her support for Black Lives Matter and acknowledges the disproportionate rate at which Black people are targeted by police across the country. But she directly faults the "Defund the Police" movement for the departure of hundreds of Seattle police officers, including herself.
“One day out of the blue [the Council] said they were going to cut my salary. Another day they said they were going to cut the salary of the command staff. It was a very, very vindictive environment, very rude," Best says. "Maybe it was because they thought I was uppity because I was speaking out."
And from her perspective, the Council wasn't interested in mending the relationship.
"They clearly did not have time to talk to Carmen Best," she says. "And I didn’t want to be a detriment to the men and women of the organization or the community. That kind of fracturing and discontent and contention helps no one.”
Best's critics would argue she contributed to that discontent, though.
In a pivotal moment during the 2020 protests, she approved the use of tear gas on the crowds.
“We used the tried and true tactics that we had always implemented, but this was different. I don't know how else to say it. This was different," she says of that decision, which she says she "dreaded."
The controversy of that moment is not lost on her: "I'll take those lumps. I know a lot of people disagreed with that particular tactic. I really did a lot of soul-searching about what we could have done better."
It wasn't lost on her fellow leaders in law enforcement either.
In Black in Blue, Best recalls requesting backup from other law enforcement agencies in the region to help her officers clear the Capitol Hill Occupied Protest, or CHOP. The Bellevue Police Department was the only one that responded.
"Many of the agencies had, over time, always provided mutual aid and always been very helpful. But ... a lot of agencies didn't want to come forward," she says, adding those agencies' leaders didn't want a share of the criticism SPD got for deploying tear gas.
"It was difficult to take. There was a sense of they're leaving us out here," she says, and she understood they were all in a difficult position. "We just felt like we needed to get it done. They weren't coming. They were willing to help out to a certain degree, but nobody was willing to put their officers in Seattle."
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By the time the Seattle City Council took up calls to defund the department by as much as 50%, Best says it was time for her to go.
Her exit came after the Seattle Police Department had been under a federal consent decree for 10 years. The department had been found guilty of biased policing and excessive use of force. Best was part of the team that was making changes at SPD. She hoped to continue that work while in her role as chief.
Still, in Black in Blue, she describes the department as "a national model for policing."
"Because of [the consent decree], the department had done a lot of policy changes, a lot of review, a lot more engagement than we'd ever seen before," she argues. "Other agencies were trying to figure out what we were doing up in Seattle."
Best says she worked nearly 30 years through the system to get to a place where she could help the profession evolve. She was in that position for just two years. Seattle, and much of the country, is still divided about police.
Should police budgets be cut? By how much?
Does Seattle need more police officers? How many?
These questions became main issues in Seattle campaigns for the 2021 election.
In the mayor's race, Current Seattle City Council President Lorena González and former Council President Bruce Harrell have drawn their lines on policing. González favors alternatives to policing while Harrell has promised to hire more police officers.
And the line could not be more clear than it is in the race for Seattle city attorney, in which a self-described abolitionist is up against a former Republican candidate for lieutenant governor.
Yet, Carmen Best insists the future of policing is bright.
She thinks back to that conversation with her daughter, how they were both able to find agreement that change was necessary, but they had different views about how to do it.
There's still be a lot of work left to do, she says. But it's possible because of the work that has already been done.
"There has been positive change, and good things have happened," she says. “We have to acknowledge the history of police and policing in America. We can do that and still look forward to doing better.”