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caption: Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best holds a press briefing after the Capitol Hill Organized Protest zone was cleared by Seattle Police Department officers early Wednesday morning, July 1, 2020, at the intersection of 12th Avenue and East Pine Street in Seattle.
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Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best holds a press briefing after the Capitol Hill Organized Protest zone was cleared by Seattle Police Department officers early Wednesday morning, July 1, 2020, at the intersection of 12th Avenue and East Pine Street in Seattle.
Credit: Megan Farmer

Who made the call to leave East Precinct last summer? Chief Carmen Best's eye-popping interview

In a recent interview, former Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best gave an unprecedented account of the events that unfolded last June during the protests for civil rights on Capitol Hill.

Best said her subordinates evacuated the East Precinct without her knowledge, that protesters flummoxed police by erecting their own barricades, and that city administrators seemed blithely accepting of the "autonomous zone," known as CHOP or CHAZ. She said the decision to clear the area and retake control left her fearful of a “mini-Waco.”

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erry Ratcliffe interviewed Carmen Best for the latest episode of his podcast, “Reducing Crime.” Ratcliffe is a former police officer in Britain, who is now a criminal justice professor at Temple University. It’s a conversation between two law enforcement professionals, looking back on Seattle’s protests last June, in the wake of the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. The interview took place over lunch at a Seattle restaurant.

Much of their discussion is devoted to the question of how the police department’s evacuation of the East Precinct occurred. Carmen Best suggests that her commanders at the precinct decided to leave without consulting her.

“It was a command decision,” she said. “These things happen. I want to preface this by saying, often there’s dynamic situations, things are happening in the middle. You’re in charge and you’re making decisions. And somebody — I think people question, well, 'Why weren’t they talking to you about it being Chief?' I said I would have preferred that happen, to be honest with you. But also there’s lots of thing happening in field that are happening right then.”

Ratcliffe asked, “So one of your command staff on the ground said, ‘We’ve had enough?'”

“I think a few of the commanders,” Best said. “Not simply that ‘we've had enough,’ but they were thinking, ‘We’ve been told by the fire department that our building, which has contiguous walls to other buildings, that if it gets set on fire, it’s going up quickly. That’s a danger. And we’d already had the one precinct in Minneapolis that had been burned.'"

Best said the evacuation occurred hastily and was prompted by the mayor’s decision to remove the barricades at 11th and Pike that had become a flash point in the protests.

Best said police had an hour’s advance notice of that decision.

“It wasn’t our first choice to do as a command staff, I’m just going to be honest here, we did not want to open up those streets,” Best said. “But the mayor’s office and others were like, ‘Look there’s a skirmish line there, and that’s a point of contention.’”

“Once the decision was made that we’re gonna do it and we took the barricades up, they [the East Precinct] decided you know, we’re gonna get our people out of here, we’re gonna get our sensitive material out of here, the building’s under threat.”

Best said right up to the end, she continued to insist there was no intention to evacuate the precinct, including in a phone call with an assistant chief.

“I said, 'Well listen, we are not going to evacuate that precinct,'” Best said. “Those were my last words. She hung up, I hung up. A couple hours later it’s like, they evacuated the precinct. I’m like, ‘WHAT HAPPENED?’ It just wasn’t clear exactly what transpired.”

The street was opened, the precinct emptied, and at that point Best said protesters turned the tables on the police.

“The idea was that the next day the demonstration would happen, these things usually lasted until 2 a.m. or 3 a.m.," Best said. "Then once the crowd dissipated, we would start moving equipment and people back into the precinct. But that’s not what happened."

Instead protesters came into the area that had been blocked off and “started barricading — the same areas that we had barricades, now had barricades from others.”

Ratcliff responded, “Isn’t that an irony that barricades work – if only the city had listened to you on that!”

Best laughed. “Yeah, they keep people out, don’t they!" she said.

Best said she totally disagreed with her commanders’ call to evacuate, and that it enabled the creation of the “autonomous zone” by the protesters.

But she appears to have been equally at odds with the mayor and city council members who she said were dismissive of threats to the precinct, and of the problems presented by the so-called Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone, or CHAZ.

“The city – the political will was not there to do anything,” Best said. “The Parks Department is talking to people and they’re digging up the park and putting a vegetable garden in there. Seattle Public Utilities is bringing in port-a-potties for these folks. I think the mayor was quoted saying, ‘summer of love.’ There was no one that I could really turn to and say, ‘Does anyone see how bad this is and how it’s going to be a problem?’ It wasn’t there.“

“I just thought it was terrible, and we had a real problem, and we needed to get on this, and figure it out quickly,” she said.

Best said she consulted with federal agencies on the best way to do that, but she said they told her that the zone on Capitol Hill — apparently unlinked to any one group or leadership — was unlike anything they had dealt with previously.

Best said the tolerant attitudes of city officials changed abruptly when 19-year-old Lorenzo Anderson was shot and killed on June 20. That day Best said she was actually out of state trying to attend her daughter’s baby shower, but it was suddenly clear that the city was ready to take definitive action to clear the CHOP/CHAZ.

“We really needed to do something,” Best said. “As tragic and as sad as having young person murdered there was, it took that for people realize, oh maybe we should be doing something about it.”

Best said that brought its own set of worries for her.

“We were really concerned with planning, with how to facilitate ending CHOP without people getting hurt,” she said. “I was standing up strong for it but on the inside also terrified about this becoming a mini-Waco.

"We know people are in there, we know people are armed, we know some of the people — their mental state was questionable on a good day. A behavioral analyst gave their perspective, on that some people were so committed to what they were doing in the CHOP — having them move would be really difficult without them becoming resistant.”

Mayor Jenny Durkan issued an executive order allowing Seattle Police to clear the area on July 1.

Seattle Police gave an order to disperse at 5 a.m. that day and ultimately arrested 44 people who did not leave.

Note: This interview took place on May 3, 2021, in Seattle and makes no mention of missing text messages from Best or Mayor Durkan or Fire Chief Scoggins. On May 7, The Seattle Times reported the city's disclosure that those messages were lost and not available for public disclosure.