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July 14, 2020

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Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan and police Chief Carmen Best: A pairing under stress, put to the test

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Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan, center, pauses while speaking, as Chief of Police Carmen Best, left, listens during a news conference Monday, June 22, 2020, in Seattle. Durkan said the city is working with the community to bring the  "Capitol Hill Occupied Protest" zone to an end.
Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan, center, pauses while speaking, as Chief of Police Carmen Best, left, listens during a news conference Monday, June 22, 2020, in Seattle. Durkan said the city is working with the community to bring the "Capitol Hill Occupied Protest" zone to an end. (Ken Lambert/The Seattle Times via AP) Photo Gallery

SEATTLE — Two years ago, career Seattle police officer Carmen Best was waiting for a severance offer when Mayor Jenny Durkan dangled an 11th-hour job proposition: a newly created advisory role, devised to keep Best in the fold, amid a public outcry that she’d been passed over to be the city’s next police chief.

“Since you told me last week you had changed your mind and felt it was best to move out of the department, I have been thinking through options,” Durkan wrote in an email to Best on June 29, 2018. “I would love for you to consider staying on as Deputy Mayor for Public Safety and Public Health or as Public Safety Advisor (like I said the title is negotiable.)”

By then, more than a month had passed since the mayor’s task force had revealed its finalists for police chief. Best, an assistant chief who’d been the position’s placeholder, didn’t make the cut.

Instead, Durkan was expected to offer the permanent role to one of three outsiders, with Cameron McLay, a former Pittsburgh police executive with a national reputation as a reformer, considered the front-runner.

Best, a 26-year-veteran who’d won support from community groups and the rank-and-file officers guild, appeared on the verge of leaving the department, the never-before-publicized email exchanges show. Best told Durkan she’d consider the job offer, but it clearly wasn’t what she’d wanted.

“Mayor, As I have expressed, I had hoped to be the Chief of Police,” Best said in the email, cc’ing her personal attorney, Anne Bremner. “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.”

Best never received the severance offer. Within a week, Durkan quietly negotiated an advisory role for McLay, and Best replaced him on the finalists’ list. She would be named chief a short time later.

The stunning reversal fortified the shaky underpinnings of a relationship between Seattle’s mayor and her once-rejected police chief that two years later faces its biggest test: A radical reimagining of the city’s police department amid community unrest and demands for sweeping change.

The relationship also has been further stressed by a city decision to abandon its East Precinct in the face of protests. After several recent shootings in the surrounding protest zone known as the Capitol Hill Occupied Protest, or CHOP, Durkan and Best this week called for officers to return to the precinct, though neither has specified when that might happen.

Best, who through a spokesperson Friday declined an interview, instead offered a brief statement about her relationship with Durkan and the 2018 emails: “I wanted to be the Police Chief. I am the Police Chief. We have a lot of work to do moving forward, and that is my focus at this time.”

An “excellent” relationship

During public appearances in recent weeks, Best and Durkan have tried to present a unified front while at times defending and reacting to the police response to demonstrations sparked by the May 25 killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. That response, which Durkan has acknowledged at times seemed heavy-handed, has drawn thousands of complaints and calls for both leaders to resign.

But as pressure mounted earlier this month, the decision to vacate the East Precinct, which officers in riot gear defended for days as hundreds of demonstrators occupied the surrounding blocks, has created a public fissure in the bond between the mayor and chief.

That decision, which has yet to be clearly explained to the public, drew national attention and led to Best’s video address to her officers, in which she distanced herself from the move. It also remains the subject of questions as the mayor and the chief try to navigate officers’ return to the precinct on East Pine Street.

“If neither the mayor nor the chief authorized officers leaving the East Precinct, who did?” Councilmember Lisa Herbold asked during a public safety committee hearing Tuesday. “What does it mean that a building full of public workers left their place of employment and we have no idea who it was who told them to do so?”

Best, 55, is a former department media-relations officer with savvy public-relations skills. When initially rejected for the chief’s job, she was viewed by some as a department insider too tight with the rank-and-file officers guild — a potential hurdle for the agency trying to get out from under U.S. Justice Department oversight.

As a product of the system she’s now tasked with reenvisioning, she nonetheless has rallied support in recent days from Seattle’s Black religious leaders.

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

Best also has recast herself as a reformer during national media appearances after she joined Durkan in Seattle’s massive Black Lives Matter march on June 12.

“People are angry. They had a lot of signs about the Police Department and defunding the Police Department and issues of brutality, and we can’t ignore that,” Best told CNN’s Chris Cuomo, a week after ordering her officers to disperse protest crowds with tear gas, a tactic she had promised would be temporarily banned.

“I really sat and thought about it and I really had an epiphany about, we’re going to have to change.”

Durkan, 62, a business-friendly centrist Democrat and former U.S. Attorney, has struggled to connect with progressives driving the reform movement. The mayor, who has been the subject of speculation about a federal appointment should Joe Biden win the presidency, has acknowledged some mistakes and that she moved too slowly during the city’s response to demonstrations. But she dismisses calls to resign from socialist Councilmember Kshama Sawant and others, and insists her relationship with Best has never been stronger.

“My relationship with Chief Best is excellent,” Durkan said in a recent interview. “I think the whole narrative of somehow this friction between the chief and I just isn’t accurate and it really diminishes her role. She’s a national leader on policing.”

Bungled police responses to social uprisings in Seattle’s past have ended both police and political careers. Chief Norm Stamper retired in the wake of the police department’s tear-gas-tinged response to the WTO riots in 1999. His boss, Mayor Paul Schell, was trounced in the 2001 primary later after his challengers campaigned on police actions during WTO and a deadly Mardi Gras riot.

“The police chief is the most important appointment that a mayor makes,” said Stephen Page, a University of Washington associate professor who teaches management, leadership and strategy. “But that means when things go wrong with policing in city government in a high-profile way, it’s very risky for a mayor to throw a police chief under the bus because that’s their appointment.”

Trust, division of labor and alignment of agendas are generally key to a successful relationship among such top executives, “but they become extra important when you’ve got people in the streets or precincts taken by organized protests,” Page said.

Vacating the precinct

For Best and Durkan, the stakes are even higher than surviving the scrutiny of the city’s response to the recent demonstrations. Both now must re-envision policing’s role in the city’s future.

Already, pressure from the protests has prompted a series of reactions: the city withdrew a federal court motion that could have ended federal oversight of the department; ended a nightly curfew amid ongoing demonstrations; ordered officers to reposition mourning bands to expose their badge numbers; and announced a 30-day ban on tear gas, though it lasted just two days.

Both Durkan and Best are aligned in seeing officers return to the precinct, but the call for vacating it in the first place has exposed division.

Preparations for vacating the precinct started June 8, hours after Best said she ordered SWAT officers to deploy tear gas to disperse demonstrators when officers spotted “a man with a gun in the crowd” and “felt like it was a life safety situation … and I concurred.”

On June 11, three days after the city covered the precinct’s windows in plywood and removed street barricades that allowed demonstrators to access the block, Best issued a video to her “SPD family.”

“You should know leaving the precinct was not my decision. You fought for days to protect it,” the chief said. “I asked you to stand on that line, day in and day out, to be pelted with projectiles, to be screamed at, threatened and in some cases hurt, then to have a change of course nearly two weeks in, it seems like an insult to you and our community.

“Ultimately the city had other plans for the building and relented to severe public pressure. I’m angry about how all this came about.”

At a news conference later that day, the chief and the mayor tried to sidestep questions homing in on who made the decision to vacate the precinct.

“As we were moving things out, you know, the decision was made to, you know — as officers are taking things out of the precinct, they didn’t want to come back into the precinct and many of them did not,” Best said.

Durkan, when pressed about the chief’s video and its contentions the city had caved to pressure, responded: “That was a decision that was made in concert with the command staff and others on the ground. And as the chief said, we’ll be looking at that. I think it was the right decision.”

Assistant Chief Thomas Mahaffey served as the overall incident commander for the department’s response to the demonstrations and Capt. Bryan Grenon is the East Precinct’s commander; it is unclear if either made the decision, and Durkan and Best have not specified who did.

Removing the barriers was “critical to removing the flashpoint,” the mayor said, adding there were “safety concerns for people in the building and the equipment. But that is not the equivalent of abandoning the station.”

Durkan has since told The Seattle Times she didn’t make the decision to leave the precinct and cited an unnamed “on-scene commander for SPD” for making the call. Best did not answer a question from The Times last week asking who made the decision to vacate the precinct, saying only she did not.

“They came and said, ‘This is what we’re doing.’ I said, ‘This is the right decision.’ But it was the scene commander from SPD who decided,” she said. “It was not at my direction or at the direction of the chief, who left it up to the people who were operationalizing it. ”

During a Monday news conference, Best blamed the City Council for its recent ban on tear gas and other “less lethal tools” for impeding her officers’ ability in responding to last weekend’s fatal shooting, contending police were “met with a hostile crowd that prevented them from getting to the victims.”

“A life might have been saved if not for the circumstances

created by hasty legislation,” the chief said. “… I know Mayor Durkan stands with me and supports me. We are both champions of police reform and we need the council to join in that work instead of focusing on how best to lay off city employees.”

But Herbold, chair of the council’s public safety committee, questioned Tuesday how tear gas would have saved the victim’s life. The city law banning crowd control weapons doesn’t take effect until late July, and police arrived after the victim had been taken to the hospital, she said. Herbold also suggested the still unexplained decision to vacate the precinct allowed the CHOP to grow “to be this situation that we’re addressing right now.”

Best, who declined to respond to speak last week about her relationship with Durkan, expressed confidence in her boss when directly asked during the June 11 news conference.

“Yes, I have faith in the mayor. I’m standing here, right?” Best said. “Right next to her, giving the briefing, you know.”

Durkan broke in: “I have confidence in the chief. And we’ve been asked in other forums — are you going to resign? Is the chief going to resign? And the answer is no and no. We thought about a Thelma and Louise moment, but that’s not happening either. We are here. We’ve got work to do and we’re going to get it done.”

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