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Faded dream: Carmen Best’s career aspirations to be Seattle’s top cop soured over a few short months

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Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best pauses as she speaks during a news conference, Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2020, in Seattle. Best, the first Black woman to lead Seattle's police department, announced she will be stepping down in September following cuts to her budget that would reduce the department by as many as 100 officers. (AP Photo/Ted S.
Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best pauses as she speaks during a news conference, Tuesday, Aug. 11, 2020, in Seattle. Best, the first Black woman to lead Seattle's police department, announced she will be stepping down in September following cuts to her budget that would reduce the department by as many as 100 officers. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren) Photo Gallery

SEATTLE — Two years ago, being the police chief in Seattle was Carmen Best’s dream job, a position she had worked toward and been groomed for for much of her 28-year career with the department.

Since May 25 the day a Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd that dream has faded into something more of a nightmare, and on Monday, Best decided she’d had enough.

Her sudden retirement in the face of controversial budget cuts including her salary has surprised and angered Best’s friends, colleagues, peers and mentors, who believe she got a raw deal or worse at the hands of the city she spent her career serving.

“She has got to be the most talented chief this department has ever had,” said Jim Pugel, a retired Seattle Police Department interim chief and friend and mentor of Best. “Those people (the City Council) act like good chiefs just grow on trees.”

Best, 55, who grew up in Tacoma and graduated from Lincoln High School in 1983, studied and ran track at Eastern Washington University. She joined the U.S. Army midway through college, serving three years before leaving the military in 1989. She was working for an insurance company when she met her future husband, Larry, a Boeing inspector, and when she decided to test with the Seattle Police Department.

Hired in 1992, Best worked a variety of assignments on her climb through the ranks to the top. Early on, she worked in patrol and school safety before earning promotions under then-Chief Norm Stamper, who assigned Best to her first stint in media relations.

“I promoted her to sergeant, and I remember being very impressed by her as having this kind of 1,000-watt personality,” Stamper said Tuesday. “She was always up, always positive, always direct, the kind of person who would tell you the truth as she saw it. You can’t ask for anything more as a chief, and I thought she was perfect for media relations.”

Best continued to ascend, working as a patrol supervisor, a watch commander and an operations lieutenant. She won promotions to command positions in the narcotics unit, in the robbery, gangs and fugitive unit and in community outreach.

Former police Chief Gil Kerlikowske, who also tasked Best with returning to media relations in the mid-2000s, recalled Tuesday that her work ethic and dedication stood out.

“I thought her ability for self-improvement, just rising through the ranks, was always helpful to me,” he said. “You can identify people that are on a track to move up in the organization, and you foster that by putting them into different positions.”

Kerlikowske noted Best has earned a national reputation as a chief, with several large cities interested in hiring her, “but her heart and loyalty were to Seattle.”

Between 2012 and 2014, Best jumped from lieutenant to captain, briefly serving as commander of the South Precinct before her promotion to assistant chief of criminal investigations. In one of her early moves as Seattle’s new chief, Kathleen O’Toole promoted Best to deputy chief, where she served as O’Toole’s second-in-command for 3 1/2 years.

Under O’Toole, Best was tasked with helping to implement federally mandated reforms required by a 2012 consent decree to address excessive force and biased policing.

O’Toole announced she was stepping down in late 2017, shortly before a federal judge found Seattle police to be in full and effective compliance with reforms imposed on the city after a string of high-profile incidents involving use of force.

Merrick Bobb, appointed by a federal judge in 2012 to oversee implementation of the consent decree, said Tuesday he always found Best to be “warm, engaging, good-humored and pleasant to work with.”

“I was proud to be associated with a city where she was the chief,” Bobb added. “Had George Floyd’s death and the aftermath not occurred, I would not have been surprised to see the Consent Decree dissolved soon, with the exception of discipline and accountability.”

During her stint as deputy chief, Best also cultivated relationships with communities of color and with the rank-and-file police officers’ guild. Such varied support ultimately helped her win the chief’s job after initially being passed over.

When O’Toole left at the end of 2017, new Mayor Jenny Durkan named Best interim chief and announced the city would undertake a national search for O’Toole’s replacement.

The mayor’s task force heading the search viewed Best as a department insider too tight with the rank and file a potential hurdle for the agency trying to get out from under U.S. Justice Department oversight.

When Best didn’t make the cut on the list of three finalists for the job, the backlash was severe. The Rev. Harriett Walden, a longtime African American leader in Seattle and a founder of Mothers for Police Accountability, led a delegation to Durkan’s office, where she told a mayoral aide, “The honeymoon that she did have is absolutely over.”

Sgt. Rich O’Neill, then-vice president of the Seattle Police Officers Guild, voiced concerns that the search committee held Best’s status as an internal candidate against her.

“To be blocked by this artificial glass ceiling because you’re an internal candidate, it just seemed wrong,” he said.

In late June 2018, as Best was on the verge of leaving the department, Durkan attempted to calm the waters by offering her a job as the mayor’s public safety adviser or deputy mayor.

“Mayor, As I have expressed, I had hoped to be the Chief of Police,” Best responded in the email to Durkan. “I appreciate your very kind offer of an alternative position within your administration and I will take the time to review the offer and give it due consideration. That being said, your office … had stated I would receive a written settlement offer to consider today.”

Within a week, Durkan quietly negotiated an advisory role for one of the finalists, Cameron McLay, replacing his name with Best’s on the finalists’ list.

“I want people to know I’m qualified, I’ve earned this and I’ve worked really hard to get here,” Best said then. “There’s nothing more important to me than being chief in Seattle.”

A short time later, she would be named police chief, becoming the city’s first Black woman appointed to the job.

From the beginning, Best faced steep challenges. They included a deepening homelessness crisis, the department’s albatross of ongoing federal oversight under the consent decree, an unresolved contract with the police officers’ guild and a shooting spree in downtown Seattle that left businesses and citizens questioning the city’s public safety approach.

None would compare with the last three months of civil uprisings and unrest, however.

Widespread criticism, lawsuits and legislation have been levied against the Seattle police response under Best to this year’s massive and ongoing racial injustice demonstrations, sparked by Floyd’s death. Officers drew thousands of complaints for heavy-handed use of tear gas, flash-bang devices, pepper spray and indiscriminate force during the demonstrations, some of which have been marked by periodic looting, arson and violence.

When the department surrendered the East Precinct, leading to the establishment of the so-called Capitol Hill Organized Protest zone on Capitol Hill, Best distanced herself from making the decision, but has refused to say who did. As protesters occupied the area surrounding the abandoned precinct, police drew more criticism for responding slowly to criminal activity inside the zone, including shootings that left two men dead.

As murmurs about Best stepping down emerged, Seattle’s Black religious leaders rallied around her.

“We fought the Police Department to get you here. We didn’t back down,” Walden, co-chair of the city’s Community Police Commission, told Best during a gathering of Black clergy in June. “We know that Black women in leadership have a hard time and sometimes people like to crush them.”

Best also recast herself as a reformer, making national media appearances and announcing she’d had an epiphany about re-envisioning of policing during Seattle’s massive Black Lives Matter march on June 12.

In the end, it wasn’t enough. Some of Best’s supporters and defenders now blame her decision on what they describe as the city council’s knee-jerk approach at slashing a police budget without seeking Best’s input.

“It’s a disgrace,” said Pugel, the retired SPD assistant chief who briefly served as the Seattle Police Department’s interim chief in 2014. Pugel ran for City Council last year, losing to Andrew Lewis in the general election.

Pugel said Monday that he had been the one who promoted Best from lieutenant to captain over the criminal investigations division, and later to assistant chief.

“There wasn’t enough I could do for her,” he said. “She has done more for the department in terms of diversity and representation in the community than anyone.”

Ron Sims, the former King County executive and deputy secretary for Housing and Urban Development under President Barack Obama, said Tuesday the council’s approach was unnecessarily reckless.

“I’ve never, ever seen elected officials humiliate a public employee like that in public. You just don’t do that,” Sims said Tuesday. “And she’s an African American woman, one of the few to ever be the chief of police in any city. And this is how the council is handling her?”

Stamper, who retired amid similar turmoil following the WTO riots in 1999, said he believes a community conversation about overhauling policing policies and practices is long overdue, but the council has handled it poorly.

“They’ve been irresponsible and reckless, especially if it’s true that the police chief was not consulted in these conversations,” he said. “This has to be a collaborative process. I don’t know how else you can say that stripping the salary from the first African American woman police chief and her command staff is in any fashion respectful.”

Some worried the repercussions of Best’s treatment are yet to be fully recognized.

“What I worry about in the long run because of the toxic environment that’s been created here is who would now want to take that job,” Sims asked. “Will anyone really want to be Seattle’s next police chief?”

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