A police chief’s message to community: Help us ‘do a better job’

Elaine Thompson/AP
Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best talks with activists near a closed Seattle police precinct June 9, 2020. On July 1, police returned to the East Precinct building, after clearing a weekslong protest zone in the Capitol Hill neighborhood.

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When Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best saw video footage of George Floyd’s death, she was devastated. And she knew that the “blatant, grave disregard for human life,” as she puts it, would lead to protests.

But she did not predict their intensity – or their dramatic, far-reaching impact on her own department and personal views about how policing in America must change.

Why We Wrote This

Few people are forced to grapple with the complexity of this summer’s protests and calls for racial justice as are Black police officers. One week after Seattle cleared demonstrators’ occupation, its police chief – one of just a few women of color leading U.S. departments today – takes stock.

Chief Best, a 28-year veteran of the department, is one of only a handful of Black women leading U.S. police forces today. She soon found herself managing a crisis, as huge protests led to escalating clashes with police, and a six-block occupation. Thousands of complaints were filed over officers’ use of force, and some protesters demanded her resignation. Many have called for Seattle to “defund” the police, shifting money to community services.

Chief Best, while an advocate for her police “family,” has kept an open mind. She joined a silent Black Lives Matter march on June 12, which proved transformative to her own thinking. The community must not just advise, but lead, in efforts to create a new model of public safety, she believes.

“Very clearly there are people who still feel a lack of trust,” she says. “It’s not enough to check the boxes.”

Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best was watching the television news in her bedroom in late May when she first saw video footage of George Floyd being suffocated under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer.

“Honestly, I was mortified,” Chief Best recalls. “It’s almost like you are watching it, but you can’t believe what you are seeing,” she says. Then “you realize you just witnessed a man’s last few minutes on earth. It was incredibly devastating.”

A 28-year veteran of the Seattle Police Department (SPD) and its first Black leader, appointed in 2018, Chief Best knew instantly that protests would erupt following the “blatant, grave disregard for human life.”

Why We Wrote This

Few people are forced to grapple with the complexity of this summer’s protests and calls for racial justice as are Black police officers. One week after Seattle cleared demonstrators’ occupation, its police chief – one of just a few women of color leading U.S. departments today – takes stock.

But Chief Best doubts she or anyone could have anticipated the intensity of the nationwide demonstrations against police brutality that followed – or their dramatic, far-reaching impact on her own police department and personal views about how policing in America must change.

CHOP challenge

Within two weeks, Chief Best was managing a crisis that she described to fellow officers as “one of the toughest times ever in the history of the Seattle Police Department.” Huge Black Lives Matter protests led to escalating clashes with police and the chaotic, headline-grabbing occupation of a six-block section of Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, including the SPD’s East Precinct building.

After the city ordered the removal of barricades, police removed weapons and other sensitive items, and were effectively shut out of the “no cop” protest zone, dubbed the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ) and later the Capitol Hill Occupied Protest (CHOP). Activists and supporters flocked to the area, which many saw as an experiment for new relationships between law enforcement and their communities. But in the following weeks, gun violence escalated, and by the end of June, two young Black men had been shot and killed in the vicinity.

“Two African American men are dead, at a place where they claim to be working for Black Lives Matter. But they’re gone, they’re dead now,” Chief Best told a press conference, her frustration mounting. “Enough is enough.”

Today, the future of the Seattle Police Department is no less complex than the messy situation Chief Best and her officers face on the ground. Since 2011, when the U.S. Justice Department found a pattern of unconstitutional use of force within the SPD, the department has undergone exhaustive, court-guided reforms. Seattle became a leader in crisis response training, mandated by a 2012 federal consent decree, with Chief Best playing an integral role in ensuring compliance. But “these policies seem like ancient history now,” she wrote in a June 22 letter to the Seattle community.

The city has been gripped by street protests against police brutality, with activists calling for “defunding” the police – slashing its $409 million budget by as much as 50% – and shifting the money to community services. Calls to 911, for example, might be moved outside the Police Department, since most do not involve violent crime. The City Council began debating defunding proposals on Wednesday, with four of nine members backing the 50% budget cut idea. In June, the council banned police use of chokeholds and crowd control munitions such as tear gas. The SPD’s use of force during protests that were largely peaceful sparked thousands of complaints and calls by activists for Chief Best to resign.

“We have to engage”

But rather than defending her record and resisting the historic push for change, Chief Best – one of only a handful of women of color to lead a big-city police department in the United States – has kept an open mind. She joined a silent Black Lives Matter march of between 66,000 and 85,000 people through southern Seattle on June 12, an outpouring that proved transformative to her own thinking.

Elaine Thompson/AP
Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best (center) bumps elbows in greeting an officer as the chief walks the perimeter of an area police cleared hours earlier on July 1, 2020, in Seattle. For weeks, streets had been blocked off in an area occupied by demonstrators after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

As the marchers crossed Rainier Avenue South, Chief Best stepped aside for a minute to watch the crowd flow quietly by. “The vast majority were carrying signs, and many of the signs were specifically about the Seattle Police Department, defunding SPD, stopping police brutality, looking at qualified immunity, all these really important issues,” she says.

Gazing at the faces, she had an epiphany, realizing where all the years of SPD reforms had fallen short. “Even with all that work ... very clearly there are people who still feel a lack of trust,” she says. “It’s not enough to check the boxes and follow all those rules. We have to engage in a much deeper and more ... real-time way” with the community.

The U.S. is in the midst of nothing less than “a social justice reckoning four-hundred years in the making,” Chief Best wrote in her letter to the Seattle community 10 days later. What is needed, she says, is “a complete re-envisioning of community safety and the police department’s role in it.” The community must not just advise, but lead, in this effort to create a new model of public safety, she believes.

A major part of a reimagined police force could involve shifting some duties to civilian community organizations, she says. For example, crisis intervention could be handled by mental health professionals, while homeless outreach and advocacy could be diverted to other agencies.

Working together

Yet while Chief Best embraces change, she remains an advocate for what she calls her SPD “family.” Raised in Tacoma, Washington, the oldest of four children in a military household, Chief Best enlisted in the Army during college, then joined SPD in 1992. Her rise through the ranks was not always easy. “I had my detractors, folks who weren’t as comfortable with my presence, but I also had a lot of people who supported me,” she says.

Still, she has been drawn to tightknit teams ever since. She makes it clear that she opposes budget cuts that would reduce the ranks of newly recruited officers, nearly 40% of whom are ethnic minorities – some of the SPD’s most diverse hiring.

She also pushes back against the ban on crowd control munitions. While acknowledging that police use of tear gas, pepper spray, and “blast balls” – similar to flash-bang grenades – repelled many peaceful protesters in addition to the much smaller contingents of “real bad actors” in the crowds, she still believes they are important tools.

“In hindsight, clearly we could have had different tactics,” she says. “But I don’t believe we should throw the baby out with the bathwater. It is much safer to use those types of munitions than it is to leave officers with only riot batons and guns like in the ’60s.”

Her plan? “Let’s have the community engage with this, and they can determine what is peaceful and what is not, what’s acceptable, what’s not, so we do a better job.”

During the CHOP standoff last month and calls for her resignation, Chief Best did turn to the community. Some Black activists and clergy helped defuse the conflict, urging CHOP protesters to leave the area, despite others’ objections.

“We stand with you,” the Rev. Harriett Walden of Mothers for Police Accountability told Chief Best at a prayer gathering with Black clergy at Goodwill Missionary Baptist Church on June 14. “We know that Black women in leadership have a hard time, and sometimes people like to crush them,” she said. “I would never let anybody ... crush a Black woman in front of me.”

Police moved into the CHOP zone early on July 1, retaking the East Precinct building without any significant injuries to officers or protesters. The precinct is now up and running again.

At heart, Chief Best says, she’s stayed with the force for nearly three decades because she believes “there is a role for the police service to really be helpful.”

“When I came out of the womb,” she told the prayer gathering, “I was a Black woman. When I leave this earth, I will be a Black woman.” Serving as police chief is “just a moment in time,” she said, “and I want to use it for good.”

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