Carmen Best Is Doing Just Fine
How can we create the future we want?
By Rob Smith June 16, 2022
Retired Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best was thrust into the national spotlight in the summer of 2020 when the city erupted in protests. Many devolved into violence, and resulted in the subsequent months-long occupation of six downtown blocks. Protestors called for the city to defund or abolish the police. The Seattle City Council threatened to slash the beleaguered department’s funding by 50% before eventually settling on 20%.
Meanwhile, six people were shot and two were killed in the Capitol Hill Occupied Protest zone. Businesses were smashed and looted. The Seattle Police Department was forced to abandon the nearby East Precinct and fires were set at the construction area of a juvenile detention facility.
“To me, this was a city in pain, afraid and in desperate need of validation,” Best writes in her book “Black in Blue: Lessons in Leadership, Breaking Barriers and Racial Reconciliation.”
In that book, she attempts to work through the events of that summer while connecting them to leadership lessons from throughout her life and career, and the racism she encountered along the way. “After everything, I really wanted to put down some thoughts about the leadership lessons I learned,” she says. “Honestly, it was very cathartic to do it.”
Ultimately, in early August 2020 after councilmembers proceeded with plans to slash the police budget and lay off more than 100 officers, Best resigned in protest. In the book, she calls the council’s unwillingness to speak with her ahead of their vote “a systematic way of shutting us out.”
“The council didn’t want anything to do with me or anything I had to say,” she writes. “And I was not going to stand for it.”
Since then, Best has spoken out many times on her experience and on police reform, become an NBC/MSNBC analyst and, most recently, a top candidate for the New York City Police Commissioner job. “The New York Post” reported that she was the top pick for the role until she expressed concern she wouldn’t report directly to incoming New York Mayor Eric Adams, but rather, a newly created deputy mayor position. Adams denied that, though the position ultimately went to Keechant Sewell, a longtime member of the Nassau County police force.
Best discusses how that tense summer of 2020 changed her and what it means for Seattle’s future.
In the book, you mention starting your career during the Rodney King incident in 1992 and ending it during the George Floyd tragedy. What changed during that time? Not enough. We’re still facing some of the very same issues at a very fundamental level.
What’s your biggest fear related to that? Look, we went through that spring and summer of protest, through this racial reckoning with George Floyd and his murder. What’s sad is what substantively came out of that. It didn’t change anything. There are still no federal standards. There’s always some sort of outcry, a lot of energy gets behind these things, but I’m still looking for the follow-through and the real substantive change.
What do you think of the phrase ‘defund the police’? Depending upon who you’re talking to, what they’re asking for and what they’re saying are two different things. That was always an issue. Some wanted to just move the funds to other places. Some wanted the absolute abolishment of police. I had a guy say to me, ‘Let me be clear. What we mean is abolish the police.’ Others wanted to fund other things, but not necessarily all from the police department. There was that weird confluence of ideas.
What did it mean to you? We need to look at other alternatives to having an officer respond to all these people in crisis or addiction or other things that were not necessarily crimes. Wouldn’t it be a lot better if we could get to those issues further upstream?
How do police deal with this ambiguity? You have a lot of potentially dangerous situations. The police have filled in the gaps for other failed or broken systems. We’ve trained all the officers to do crisis intervention training. That doesn’t make them professional crisis people. Look, when somebody’s out at 2 a.m., naked in the street, waving a machete around, it’s too late to call a social worker at that point.
Did you see any other alternative to leaving? The fact of the matter is I wasn’t going to stick around and have the Seattle City Council cut the department up by 50%. They were saying they were going to lay off the new hires, which had a large number of women and minorities. That really sets the chief up for failure because when that happens, crime goes up and people’s frustration level goes up. It was just bad policy that I couldn’t sign onto.
What’s the most difficult part of leading a police department? This may sound funny, but you just have to try not to delve into the politics. This is not supposed to be a political position. The police wear the white hat, the good versus bad, all those things. But in fact, politics play a huge role in what happens and how it happens. That maneuvering can be incredibly tricky. Incredibly tricky.
How difficult was it to be a Black police chief during a time of such racial unrest? There’s no one who can argue that police have been complicit in racial strife at times. We haven’t become perfect yet as a profession but there have been vast improvements. I’m telling you, though, that I’m sure there weren’t very many Black women police chiefs in 1965 when I was born. I can guarantee that.
Are expectations of the police unfair? Somehow people think that if you fix the police department then you won’t have disparity in health care or job selection or education, or any other myriad things where there are disparate outcomes. People focus on policing because obviously officers have the ability to pull a gun and take someone’s life. We recruit police officers from the human race. They’re your neighbors.
How difficult is it in a so-called progressive city like Seattle when everyone wants to reform the department? While respecting some traditions, you also want to evolve and move toward new ones. But somebody else can’t run your agency. There is a happy medium. You can be progressive and still hold on to some of the traditions and culturalism that matter. It’s not all in or all out.
Are there cities doing things right now that Seattle could replicate? Most major cities are looking to do new things. They’re definitely looking at diversionary programs, community policing engagement, and dealing with the issue of people living in shelters and being homeless. That wasn’t an issue when I was a newer police officer.
Is it worse in Seattle than other cities? It seems that the West Coast cities — Seattle, Sacramento, Portland, Los Angeles — have super-high numbers. I like what San Diego did. They inoculated everybody for Hepatitis A and started doing more intensified outreach, more hygiene outreach.
Does a specific city’s culture change how police do their jobs? There are inherent, fundamental basics with any agency, both now and in the future. A police officer in Seattle is going to have a lot more in common with a police officer in Tallahassee, Florida, in spite of the cultural differences.
How will technological innovation change policing? Technology’s going to play a greater role in how we hold people accountable for their behavior and how we’re able to figure out what crimes have occurred and even what is defined as a crime anymore. If somebody has a drone with a camera flying 50 feet above your house and looking your way, what’s the charge? There’s augmented reality, artificial intelligence, facial recognition, drones. There are things I can’t even think about.
How will day-to-day police work change? You will be able to identify officers more easily. You’ll want those officers to be trained to engage with people. Communication skills are going be much more critically important than anything else. The police force will be slimmer. For some agencies that do it well, it will be a lot more efficient.
What does policing look like in Seattle in 10 or 15 years? Ideally the police department is integrated with other agencies as a piece of public safety so that everybody has a stake in the game. (For example), the police can work with the Parks Department but it can’t just stop there. They have to make parks safe through environmental design, cutting back bushes, lighting on trees. I’d like to be looking holistically at everything.
Will Seattle lead the way on national police reform? Seattle has been a national model, and I think Seattle can still lead on police reform. We had a difficult year in 2020 between the pandemic, the unrest, the CHOP (Capitol Hill Occupied Protest) and the defunding, all of which got international attention. Everyone was watching what was happening in Seattle. It was a challenging year, to say the least.
How will that history affect the city’s ability to enact substantive change? Seattle has the ability to lead in terms of the right ideology. I worry, quite frankly, because they’ve lost so many officers. That undermines their ability to do all the things that they want to do. You’re spending all your time answering calls for service. You’re not going to have as many officers to go to a community meeting or do Shop With Cops or all the other programs.
What advice would you give to the new Seattle Police Chief? Really try to work with and build a relationship with the council because you just can’t be at odds with them and get things done for your cops. You just can’t. Try to really make an outreach effort to people who aren’t always at the table. Maintain that transparency with all community members at all times.
What advice would you give to new Mayor Bruce Harrell? The mayor’s got some challenges. He needs to let the chief run the organization, let your department heads run their organizations. Really focus on relationships with the business community and economic development. Seattle’s such a beautiful city, but in some ways, it has not been business friendly. I mean, I’ve walked down Third Avenue downtown and at certain places, it just doesn’t feel safe even when crimes are not being committed at that moment. There are other aspects to public safety that don’t have to rely on the police or a police response.
Who was a big influence on your career? (Former Seattle Police Chief) Gil Kerlikowske. I worked for him. He spent a lot of time working with academics and other people from across the country and the world, making sure that we were all learning from each other and growing. Maybe some of the folks that came after him didn’t have that same level of connectivity. If you’re not out there as a leader, you’re not giving yourself that breadth of knowledge and you’re not helping your organization.
What’s next for you? I don’t know yet. My burning desire hasn’t been to be a police chief anywhere except in New York City. Who’s going to say no to that? I’m still doing a lot of work with policing but shifting to other aspects, like some of the technology equipment training, the consent decree and that kind of thing.
Do you have any regrets? No. I miss the relationships that you build over 30 years. I would never miss the drama that I was going through at that time. Listen, I have made plenty of mistakes. All you can do is say, yeah, I made a mistake and I would do it differently if I could do it again.
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