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Council Member Mosqueda on the Best resignation, rethinking Seattle public safety

caption: Seattle City Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda.
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Seattle City Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda.
Courtesy of Jamie Rand Imaging/Jamie Colman

All within this week, the Chief of Police in Seattle announced her retirement, and the police department's budget and staffing levels were cut back. The city council voted to make those budget reductions, and has vowed to make more cuts and changes to the SPD next year.

City Council Member Teresa Mosqueda, who chairs the budget committee, joins us.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

You and your fellow council members voted to shrink the police force by about 100 officers, cut the salaries of command staff, and dismantle the Navigation Team as we know it. There's debate now about whether this went too far, or for some people not enough. The next day, Carmen Best retired. How do you feel today about voting to make these policing cuts?

I think in the wake of George Floyd's murder — in the outpouring in the street that we've seen in Seattle and across the country and the world — it really compelled us to try to look at every opportunity for us to scale down policing and also re-envision and reinvest in community oriented public safety.

I've heard from officers throughout Seattle who have said repeatedly, "I did not sign up to be a case manager. I don't want to be a mental health counselor. Why am I having to respond to… fill in the blank?" But it often relates to people who need mental health counseling, housing services, (and) social services.

So, let's begin that conversation now, and have more conversations to come in the fall and next year in terms of what that looks like. The reality is that, midway through the year, there were very few strategies in hand to really reduce overall where the footprint of the police force is, and that's okay, because this was a beginning of a conversation for us to engage in a more robust and inclusive dialogue in the fall and next year.

Specifically, what model of public safety do you want to see in Seattle? I know that the council is looking into what makes sense as far as where money is spent. What do you want to see policing look like?

The first thing I think we have to ask is how can we get folks who are non-sworn officers, who are not carrying guns, to show up to mental health calls? For example, making sure that if someone is in a moment of crisis, we have trained mental health counselors available, instead of an officer. We want there to be greater case managers and folks who are able to work with our homeless population.

The other part, in terms of public safety and public health, is investing in community-oriented strategies. The list of 20 or so ideas that have already been generated from community include things like violence reduction strategies; how to engage in self-defense strategies for women and vulnerable populations; how do we engage in de-escalation conversations so that we see few fewer incidents of violence in our community; trying to do harm reduction and gun violence reduction strategies across our city. We're really meeting community where they're at, and investing in community organizations who want to work with youth, and work with diverse populations, and really invest early.

That's on the horizon, potentially. I want to pull it back to this week. This week, Carmen Best announced that she's retiring from SPD. This was not welcome news to you. Why?

Well, first, I want to thank the chief for her incredible service, it's been 28 years, and also recognize that it is unfortunate that that’s the decision that she made, and I respect it. Also, this was never personal. This was not about one person. It's not about any specific officer as well.

This is about the institutional changes that are being demanded, not just here in Seattle, but across the country, to fundamentally reform what we mean when we say public safety; what it looks like to have a system that provides care, and public health, and security to folks; and really asking about the type of changes that can be made to address historic wrongs.

You've said this is not about individuals, it's very much about systems. But, Best has really received a lot of criticism for her handling of the protests in Seattle. Now that she's retiring, she's getting a lot of vocal support. How much of a role do you think the city council played in driving her out, as some people are saying?

When we have systems that need re-imagining or uprooting, it is an impossible task to put that on one person. I appreciate her time and service, but this has also never been about her. It's been truly about the system changes that have been needed.

Do you feel that the council treated Best fairly, that she was given the resources and support needed to make the changes people want to see?

None of the conversations that we had were directed at Chief Best. In fact, it was community and members of council at the time who were concerned that Chief Best was not on the short list that the mayor had originally put together. I think what's clear is the institution itself cannot be put on any one individual’s shoulders to change, and none of the discussions that the council has had over the course of the last three months have been directed at the chief.

I think that there's serious concerns across the nation about the way in which protesters have been met with a large show of force. That calls into attention that this is not just about SPD, and it's not just about the chief. This was a larger conversation about the systems that need to be changed.

Earlier this week. I spoke with journalist Jenna Hanchard. She said this is about more than a police chief resigning. She said there’s a lot of expectation, and undue expectation, put on Chief Best as the first African American woman police chief in the city. What do you say to that?

I heard that interview, and I absolutely agree. I think it's a near impossible situation that she had been put into, to shoulder the responsibility of changing a system. Any individual’s one identity does not undo centuries of a system that has been rooted in its original purpose, to protect property, and at the time property were considered people, African Americans.

We need to uproot our understanding of what it means to actually invest in a system that is being dedicated to public safety. If what we are using our officers for right now is public safety, then let's really ask what system changes need to happen. No one individual, and especially not just a chief, can make that change alone. It has to be a transformational conversation that involves many from community. Asking one person to shoulder that is near impossible.

I agree with what the journalist said, and I also think that it's important for us to recognize these are going to be long conversations. These are going to be tough discussions, and real change requires that kind of uncomfortable conversation to happen.

That's what we've begun to embark on here. I want to remind folks that, even if it's uncomfortable, this is not directed at any one person. It is absolutely incumbent on us to make sure that we keep working, that we keep trying to move forward towards re-envisioning what public safety looks like, and uprooting our orientation towards using the police model to respond to situations where we don't need guns or excessive force.

Listen to the interview by clicking the play button above.

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