The 2018 appointment of Carmen Best as Seattle’s first Black female chief of police looked like progress. Her abrupt resignation Tuesday felt like a step backward.
Or maybe it’s just a fork in Seattle’s road to better policing.
Chief Best, who was profiled by the Monitor last month, represented one path to reforming law enforcement after George Floyd’s death. She was supported by many Black ministers, the mayor, and some protesters. Her departure “does nothing to further our fight for authentic police accountability and the safety of Black lives,” wrote Black Lives Matter Seattle-King County.
But Seattle’s reform movement isn’t monolithic. Activist Nikkita Oliver described Chief Best as a “figurehead” of a “racist” institution. Her resignation was triggered by a City Council vote to cut her pay, shrink the police budget by $3 million, and reduce the police force by 100 officers. Ironically, as Chief Best pointed out, those cuts may result in a less diverse police force.
Why does Black leadership matter? In U.S. cities with Black police chiefs, the rate of fatal shootings by police officers is about 65% lower than in cities with white police leaders, according to a recent study by economist Stephen Wu.
Council members say they are responding to protesters, redirecting money to social programs – a resource shift Chief Best also supported. You’ll find similar debates over how to reimagine public safety and police accountability in other American cities today. This is the moment for radical change after decades of little or no progress, say some. Others, like Chief Best, seek more gradual, alternative reforms.
Seattle’s political leadership (minus the mayor) has chosen its path to progress.