Skip to main content

You make this possible. Support our independent, nonprofit newsroom today.

Give Now

Former Council President Bruce Harrell weighs in on the Seattle Council's absent Black voice

More than a week after Police Chief Carmen Best announced her retirement from the Seattle Police Department, former Council President Bruce Harrell is speaking out, calling Best's resignation a "tremendous loss."

Harrell also addressed concerns surrounding a larger issue in Seattle -- the lack of Black voices in leadership, especially on the City Council.

“(Carmen Best) is one of the best chiefs this city has ever had in its history," Harrell told KUOW's Angela King. "She understood, not only effective policing, and efficient policing, but she also understood police accountability and unreasonable use-of-force, and she has experiences that she brought to the job."

Harrell was first elected to the Seattle City Council in 2007, representing District 2 in the south end until 2019 when he opted not to run for re-election (the position is now held by Councilmember Tammy Morales). Before stepping down, Harrell was the lone Black voice on the dais, now leaving a void on the current council that has been noticed by some in the community.

Rev. Harriet Walden, for example, said the lack of a Black perspective on the City Council played a role in the recent controversy involving Chief Best. Best recently announced that she would be retiring from SPD in September, and cited issues with the Council as one reason.

"Chief Best was absolutely disrespected and treated in a way that no other police chief had ever been treated," Rev. Walden recently told KUOW. "I've been through eight (police chiefs) since 1990 and there's never been a police chief treated like Carmen Best by the City Council. It was anti-blackness at the top of the apex."

"It's been 52 years that we've always had a Black person on the City Council, starting with the great Sam Smith," Walden said. "And this is what happens..."

RELATED: Seattle reacts to Chief Best's exit from the police department

Best said that the Council's August 10 vote to cut the police budget would have forced her to layoff new, diverse recruits. She told reporters that it was the main reason she decided to resign. She added that the Council did not consult her during the decision-making process, which ultimately led to the slashing of her salary as well as the pay of her command staff.

The actions came after SPD, under Best's leadership, was criticized for how it handled local protests against racial injustice. The department has been chided for using crowd-control measures such as pepper spray, blast balls, and tear gas.

The sentiment of disrespect toward Chief Best was echoed by others in the community, such as former King County Executive, and former Secretary of HUD, Ron Sims.

Harrell agrees that a Black voice is necessary on the Council. Sam Smith became Seattle's first African American council member in 1968. There has been a Black voice on the dais ever since -- until Harrell left. But Harrell says that “history is fluid” and that while the Council currently lacks an African American voice, he is certain that it will have a Black member in the future.

“My experiences growing up in Seattle, in the Central District in the ’60s and the ’70s, certainly brought a certain perspective, a certain angst, and a certain tenacity that I think needs to be articulated in certain meetings and forums," he said. "However, I would also say that there are many candidates ... who have unique experiences as people of color, as women, and I don’t want to minimize what they bring to the table. But I would say there is something very unique about the African American experience in this country, as we all know, and I think that perspective is needed. If it’s not as a seat as an elected, then certainly as a seat at the table during discussions, during policy debates, etcetera."

Harrell won't go as far as to make judgement about the current Council's actions and decisions regarding Chief Best. He would like to understand their narrative before making that call.

“I think the issue is -- could the Council have looked at this issue from a different lens? Absolutely. And that lens would have been what makes best sense for the city, what makes best sense for (Chief Best). Are we holding her responsible for things that are out of her control? There are just a myriad of questions that should have been asked before they start slashing salaries or making some of the policy decisions they are making," Harrell said.

Harrell points out that Seattle has grown whiter in recent years with Black and brown people moving out of the city, often to places like Federal Way and Renton. That has led to more Black leaders seeking positions outside of Seattle, landing roles on school boards, councils, the state Legislature, and elsewhere.

“It is Seattle’s loss, because one thing that has made Seattle unique has been this diversity," Harrell said. "I think the city needs to realize that. We need viable, good, solid candidates to go forward and make themselves known.”

Why you can trust KUOW