The Best solution?

Screenshot 2018-08-14 at 11.17.01 AM - EditedGeov Parrish wonders who Carmen Best will serve given that the police guild may have been the new police chief’s biggest ally in the selection process

  • Story by Geov Parrish – Journalist and Political Activist, Geov has been covering City Hall for two decades and is a former writer for both the Stranger and the Weekly.  He currently co-anchors with Maria Tomchick KEXP’s “Eat the Airwaves” has his own blog ) and now writes for Outside City Hall

On July 17, Mayor Jenny Durkan nominated Interim Chief Carmen Best the new permanent chief of the Seattle Police Department, and on Monday, August 13th, her nomination was unanimously approved by Seattle City Council. But this was no ordinary passing of the torch to another SPD insider.

Best becomes the first African American woman to lead SPD – but only four days before Durkan selected her, she wasn’t even on Durkan’s list of finalists. The appointment of a new police chief in any large city is inherently a political process, especially when that department has a longstanding credible reputation for abusive use of force. But it’s hard to remember in Seattle’s history a process as publicly conflicted as Best’s selection.

After a long public process, on May 22nd, a 25-member search committee submitted five semifinalists to the mayor’s office for consideration: Best and four candidates from other cities. Only three days later, that list was whittled down to three finalists by five members of Durkan’s staff – cutting out Best and one other candidate.

At this stage and only a vague explanation that in order to “finish” the reform process, Durkan wanted to bring in an outside hire. The Mayor never even made clear who on her staff made this internal decision to remove Best and the other candidate. It took a Times reporter Steve Miletich to uncover their names. While former conservative councilmember Tim Burgess, headed the search committee, some suspect he may also have had something to do with it. He’s close to both Durkan and the Seattle Police Officer’s Guild (SPOG).

The exclusion of Best drew immediate, strong criticism from community groups that have been closely monitoring the contentious SPD reform process. They gave Best high marks, both as Interim chief and for her previous role as deputy chief in overseeing implementation of court-ordered reforms. They had a curious ally in SPOG, which blasted her exclusion as “biased and discriminatory,” a likely function of her popularity within the department.

The rationale of “we wanted an outsider” never made much sense. Over the last quarter century, the four previous permanent chiefs – Norm Stamper (1994-2000), Gil Kerlikowske (2001-2009), John Diaz (2010-2013), and O’Toole – all contended with an “old boy” culture that perpetuated abuses and was the biggest internal impediment to implementing reforms.

Diaz, an internal hire, was widely viewed as sympathetic to that culture; the other three all came from other large cities and were hired specifically to try to lead a departmental change of culture away from the bad old days. All met enormous resistance in that task. Why bring in another outsider?

As the three finalists toured the city for the next six weeks, activists continued to press for Best’s reconsideration, but there seemed to be little chance of it. Best, a 25-year SPD veteran, didn’t seem to expect it, either, and apparently felt she’d gone as far as she could go in Seattle; in 2017, she was a finalist for the top Dallas police job, and she’d surely been applying to other big city positions as well.

Then an odd thing happened. SPOG had sent representatives to the cities of the three finalists to interview officers about each of them. They came back in early July vehemently opposed to one: Cameron McLay, a former chief of police in Pittsburgh who was the only finalist to have any experience with a federally mandated reform process.

McLay reportedly lost his Pittsburgh job there due to exactly the sort of internal reform opposition that SPOG has led within SPD; SPOG’s representatives got an earful from their Pittsburgh colleagues. SPOG conveyed their strong opposition in an early July meeting with Durkan; McLay met with Durkan on July 7 concerning the reform process, and after the meeting announced that he was withdrawing as a candidate for the Seattle job. Behind the scenes, SPOG also likely pushed for Best,

Sure enough, Durkan, on announcing the McLay withdrawal, reopened the finalist list and added Best as the third candidate. On July 17, Durkan picked Best. On Monday, the city council unanimously confirmed her, removing the “Interim” tag from her job.

The historic nature of Best’s appointment has been overshadowed by the curious search process. Community pressure helped to rehabilitate Best as a candidate, but likely it was SPOG’s support that made the difference.

Seattle rank-and-file officers have been working without a contract for four years; an agreement in 2016 was overwhelmingly rejected by SPOG members. The lack of a new contract has held up critical parts of the court-ordered reforms. But suddenly, a week after Best’s selection, the city reported “progress” in the long-stalled negotiations – and the federal judge overseeing the consent decree that forced SPD reforms once again warned the city not to use raises for officers as a way to buy off SPOG’s opposition to reforms.

What did SPOG concede to the city to get Best as the chief, and how in debt to SPOG will Best be? Already, as Interim Chief, she’s defied SPOG repeatedly – as with her firing last week of two officers who recklessly opened fire on a fleeing stolen vehicle last year. Best surely wants to put the hiring process controversies behind her, but it will invariably overshadow her job until it becomes clearer who owes whom.

Durkan and Best are likely personally sympathetic – a gay woman and a black woman both have stories to tell about bucking the old boys of criminal justice. But will Durkan back her when the inevitable controversies arise, and when both, to all appearances, have major debts now with SPOG?

Carmen Best was hired in large part to transform the cultural rot that still lingers in SPD and is championed by SPOG. Let’s hope she’s given the power to do her job.

About John V. Fox

Director, Seattle Displacement Coalition
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