Like many community members, Katrina Johnson wasn’t surprised that interim chief Carmen Best was nominated as the next chief of police. An African American woman who spent 26 years in the Seattle Police Department (SPD), Best has acted as the interim chief of police since Kathleen O’Toole resigned in January—characteristics that her supporters believe prepare her to continue instituting court-ordered police reforms.
But recounting her experience dealing with the SPD as the cousin of Charleena Lyles, an African American mother who was shot and killed by police in June 2017, Johnson swallowed the news with a dose of skepticism. “Even though I don’t see eye-to-eye on some of the things that she’s done, I do think that out of the candidates that [Best] was the best one,” Johnson said.
Johnson was disappointed that Best didn’t respond to the family’s inquiries about details surrounding Lyles’ death. She and her family wanted to know, for example, why the time stamps on videos didn’t align. At a police chief forum hosted by the police accountability group Not this Time last Wednesday, Johnson questioned Best about a lack of transparency following her cousin’s death, and was disheartened by a response that she felt skirted around her inquiries and was dismissive of her family’s loss. “I wanted to freak out on that panel,” Johnson recalled. “Granted, [she] may not have been able to answer some of the questions that we had, but [she] could have just reached out and said that. But [she] did nothing, and a whole year went by.”
Carmen Best’s circuitous route to being named Seattle’s next chief of police followed community outrage and public opposition from the Seattle Police Officers Guild (SPOG)—which is reportedly in contract talks with the city, according to The Seattle Times—when she was excluded as one of the three finalists in May. Some of Mayor Jenny Durkan’s advisers cited her insider knowledge as a detriment to the police department’s needed reforms, opting for out-of-town candidates instead. In a surprising move earlier this month, finalist Cameron McLay, the former Pittsburgh police chief, withdrew himself from consideration as a candidate, putting Best back in the running.
Upon confirmation by the City Council, Best will help lead Seattle through the second phase of a 2012 consent decree, which requires SPD to reduce its use of excessive force and improve its relationship with citizens. A federal judge ruled that Seattle is in full compliance of the first phase of the consent decree in January, initiating a two-year probation period during which SPD must demonstrate sustained compliance to completely shed itself of the federal oversight.
Only a few months before Seattle was found to be in compliance of the consent decree, court-appointed monitor Merrick Bobb pointed to continued racially-biased policing in a June 2017 progress report: “The Monitoring Team discovered that the racial disparity with respect to who is stopped and who is frisked in Seattle cannot be easily explained in terms of underlying societal or social disparities in crime, demographics, or socioeconomic factors manifesting in neighborhood or geographic trends,” Bobb wrote. “Even after incorporating those factors, an individual’s race alone helps to predict the likelihood of being stopped and the likelihood of being frisked by an SPD officer.”
Former Chief O’Toole commended Durkan for choosing Best to continue leading SPD. “In terms of police reform, Carmen worked tirelessly with me, our leadership team, department members, and the community to achieve “full and effective compliance” with the terms of the Consent Decree overseen by the Federal Court,” O’Toole wrote in a statement. “Seattle is now considered the national leader for policies and training related to critical areas such as use of force, de-escalation, bias free policing, and mental health crisis intervention. Carmen and her team are well-positioned to sustain the successful reforms and continue on a trajectory of innovation.”
While some community leaders agree that Best will help improve police relations with communities of color, others like Johnson remain slightly skeptical, and fear that Best will maintain the status quo.
“I heard from the finalist at a meeting Wednesday night at Not This Time. They all essentially said the same thing. They will fire racist police. They will put more training and tools in police officers hands. They will do implicit biased training. They will involve community,” activist and former mayoral candidate Nikkita Oliver wrote in a tweet last Friday. “None of what any candidate said is new. We have literally heard all of this before and it plays out in the exact same way every time. Black and brown ppl over policed and murdered. I wanna hear someone talk boldly about the roots of policing and how they intend to uproot them.”
I want NONE of the finalists 2 be Seattle’s new police chief. Best is very nice. However, as an abolitionist, I want a chief w/a bolder racial & historical analysis willing 2 work their self out of a job & into world where public safety is achieved by meeting ppls social needs.
— Nikkita Oliver (@NikkitaOliver) July 14, 2018
Others blame Durkan and her advisers for what they believe was possible discrimination of Best, the only woman of color named as one of the five semifinalists. Although KL Shannon — Police Accountability Chair for the Seattle/King County NAACP— is confident that Best is the right person to lead SPD through the second phase of the consent decree, she does not believe that a policing system that disproportionately impacts communities of color will drastically change under Best’s watch. “Chief Best’s bread and butter is the Seattle Police Department … she is going to have to figure out how to balance the community, Durkan’s office, and SPD. It’s never going to happen. No matter how good her intentions will be,” Shannon wrote in an email to Seattle Weekly.
On the other hand, Andre Taylor — Not This Time founder and brother of Che Taylor, who was killed by Seattle Police in 2016— said that he is optimistic about Best’s ability to lead and “to bridge … the separation gaps between law enforcement and the community.” Taylor posited that Best’s knowledge of the community will make the job more challenging for her, since there will be more pressure placed on her to be accountable to residents. “As an African American woman, she has a better understanding about black and brown communities that have been policed. And I believe that even though she’s been doing policing for over 20 years, that … she can bring a new look to policing based upon that understanding,” Taylor told Seattle Weekly. “You have to start somewhere with change, and I believe that she’s the best place to start. She has our support—my support in particular.” He added that he disagreed with O’Toole’s lack of involvement in community meetings, and expressed hope that Best would not repeat O’Toole’s mistakes in that regards.
Johnson echoed the desire for Best to learn from what she perceived as O’Toole’s lack of community engagement. She conceded that she will give Best the benefit of the doubt, since O’Toole was in charge of SPD at the time of her cousin’s death. “You cannot keep going with the status quo, and there are people here who are not going to let you continue to operate the way that you’ve been operating,” Johnson said, referencing Best.
After naming Best the next chief of police, Durkan noted in a statement that SPD’s work was not over with the conclusion of the order’s first phase. “Being in full and effective compliance does not mean that we are going to quit improving as a City. I am not satisfied with the status quo, and neither is Chief Best. Both of us want the best police department in the country. That’s what I expect, and that’s what everyone in our great community deserves.”