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caption: Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best stands in front of the Seattle Police Department's abandoned East Precinct building during a press conference on Monday, June 29, 2020, inside the Capitol Hill Organized Protest zone, CHOP, in Seattle. Earlier in the morning, a 16-year-old boy was killed and a 14-year-old boy was critically injured in a shooting.
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Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best stands in front of the Seattle Police Department's abandoned East Precinct building during a press conference on Monday, June 29, 2020, inside the Capitol Hill Organized Protest zone, CHOP, in Seattle. Earlier in the morning, a 16-year-old boy was killed and a 14-year-old boy was critically injured in a shooting.
Credit: KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

How to change Seattle policing, according to Chief Carmen Best

Chief Carmen Best says she has a few ideas on how to improve policing in Seattle, as protests against racial injustice continue and the City Council aims to make significant cuts to her department.

But Best says that, until recently, she has not been engaged by council members on the issue. Speaking with KUOW’s Angela King, Chief Best laid out her thoughts on changes to SPD, and what she would suggest.

For starters, Best argues there needs to be greater communication and partnerships between the police department, city leadership, and community members.

“It’s clear to me that we need more community engagement and involvement on real-time issues,” Best said. “I’ve even suggested that we bring a community member, on a rotating basis or what-have-you, onto the command staff. So they can be engaged in those conversations; they can have a real world view and a real-time view of the work that is going on in the police department and also provide us a real-time view with what we might be missing in the community.”

She argues this engagement could be the next step after SPD spent years evolving under federal oversight. The department was previously found to practice biased policing, and was ordered by the Department of Justice to make sweeping changes. Best was part of the command staff who led those changes, before becoming Seattle's first Black female police chief.

Ongoing protests around Seattle against racial injustice and police brutality indicate that many community members want changes to go further. The protests have continued since late May, following the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers. In recent years, Seattle has experienced its own fatal incidents involving its police officers, with victims that include Charleena Lyles, Che Tayor, and John T. Williams, to name a few.

Protesters have recently marched to the homes of Seattle leaders to get their messages across, and led one such demonstration to Best’s home in Snohomish County. At the same time, the Seattle City Council has responded to protesters’ call to “defund the police.” A majority has stated they favor a 50% cut to SPD. They’ve also discussed cutting command staff salaries and staffing numbers. The goal is to shift funding to other city services. Those services would take over a portion of calls currently going to Seattle police, such as situations involving mental health. So far, the council has proposed funding cuts under 50%, but members have said they are planning for more in the future.

Chief Best says the Council has not reached out to her for any input on such proposals. She said she received an email from Councilmember Lorena González the weekend before the Council was slated to vote on the matter, with the intent of setting up meetings in the future.

“I’m not actually opposed to them changing certain things about the department,” Best said. “I think we can all recognize that there are areas we can improve and we might be able to funnel some of the work that officers have been doing into other areas. Many times, we are responding to issues because there are gaps in other systems. The mental health system is insufficient. The health care recovery system is insufficient. So those calls to 911, officers are often responding there.”

“What really concerns me is I just have not seen the plan,” she adds. “We have 800,000 calls for service every year. If you just lop off, even 100 officers, that’s going to be highly detrimental to a department that wasn’t staffed enough to deal with the calls we did have. And who is going to answer? I’m going to tell ya, at 3 a.m., when somebody is standing in the street in some kind of crisis mode, armed or unarmed, somebody is going to need to respond to address it. Right now, they haven’t hired any staff, they don’t have a plan to hire staff. What is their training going to be? They are concerned about racism, systemic racism, yet they are creating another system and simply being a mental health provider or social worker doesn’t mean you are not going to have racial issues.”

Chief Best has also argued that staffing cuts to SPD would result in many new recruits being let go (according to rules that favor seniority). She said that the group is the most diverse the department has ever hired.

Councilmember González disagrees that the chief would have to lay them off. She argued the chief can ask the hiring commission to forgo seniority for any layoffs.

Best says she has since followed up on the issue and has been advised otherwise. She tells KUOW that she spoke with the city attorney and was told the Public Safety Civil Service Commission and labor relations will handle layoffs, and their rules do not allow layoffs based on race.

“So I think those decisions will have to be made by those entities, but it’s been very clear to me from our legal advisors that you cannot do that.”

Best further says defunding SPD is not as simple as it sounds.

“I think it’s much more complex than just taking out some money and moving money elsewhere,” she said. “It’s ‘what are the functions?’ It’s the ‘What do you want to see done?’ and ‘How do you want them to be done?’ I think there is a much more deeper conversation. I keep calling it a ‘re-envisioning’ of how we do things. Who is the better party and what is the better response? I think it’s going to take a lot of thoughtful conversations and they need to be community led. It just can’t be one or two groups in an echo chamber with these discussions. If the community wants change, they should get change, but it needs be thoughtful so it works for everybody.”

“I don’t think any of us are on a different page,” Best said. “I think we all want public safety. None of us want to see Black men killed at the hands of injustice, whether by police or their neighbors or anyone else. None of us want to see crime override the city. We all want our children to be able to walk to school safely without being victimized, or predators coming after them, or shootings in their schools. We all want that. So let’s talk about who is the best entity, where is the best training, and how we can make it happen. I think that would be an important first step – to open up the communication. I believe if we do it, we will have the best city in the country. I really do.”