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Aug. 1, 2021

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Seattle’s next mayor faces a big decision: Picking a new police chief

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SEATTLE — The eight leading candidates running for Seattle mayor have diverse views on many of the issues facing the city in the aftermath of a year of pandemic and social unrest, but they all agree on this: If they win, the most pressing decision they’ll face is picking a new police chief.

That single act, the candidates agree, carries both real-world and symbolic importance. The mayor’s choice should define the new administration’s commitment to social justice and addressing systemic racism, assuage a nervous and battered business community tired of downtown crime, and restore confidence in the Seattle Police Department — not just for the city’s communities, but for demoralized officers leaving in record numbers after a bruising year of protests, calls for defunding and demands for more accountability.

It will also be an essentially impossible task to find one individual who can satisfy the community’s wide-ranging and often opposing demands for what policing in Seattle should look like.

Moreover, the new chief will be the third (sixth, if you count three interim chiefs) to try to bring the city into full compliance with a federal consent decree in place since the Department of Justice in 2012 found SPD’s officers routinely used excessive force during arrests and showed evidence of biased policing. That effort suffered a significant setback during last summer’s protests over the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police, as SPD officers faced criticism for using tear gas, pepper-spray, less-than-lethal projectiles and blast balls against the crowds on Capitol Hill.

Backlash to the SPD’s protest response — and the subsequent decision to abandon the East Precinct and turn several city blocks over to the protesters — led to calls to defund the department and, ultimately, to the retirement of Chief Carmen Best.

Best’s messy selection as chief in 2018 — she was not among the trio of finalists initially chosen by a 25-member search committee, but was supported by community leaders — is the sort of thing several of the mayoral candidates say they want to avoid. All promised a national search and a transparent process.

All of the candidates brought up some broad terms when asked what they were looking for in a chief: a “reformer,” “transformational leader” or “change agent” who will work closely with the mayor and the communities to re-imagine policing in Seattle.

There was consensus that searches for the new chief should be inclusive and incorporate input from — as candidate and former City Councilmember Bruce Harrell put it — members of “communities who are affected by police misconduct.” Harrell, however, said he “won’t exclude” looking for a new chief within SPD. He named Best as a model in selecting the next city’s chief.

Several others — current City Council President M. Lorena González, businessman Arthur Langlie, and former Chief Seattle Club Executive Director Colleen Echohawk — are skeptical that a new chief can be found in the department’s current ranks and promise a national search for the best candidate.

“I think the department could benefit from an external candidate,” González said.

The department is currently headed by interim Chief Adrian Diaz, who said he’s interested in keeping the job.

Andrew Grant Houston, 32, an architect and activist, said his “first choice” would be to look outside of law enforcement altogether and try to find a civilian — not a sworn officer — for the role.

“If it’s possible for the chief to actually be someone from the community — whether a member of the Community Police Commission (CPC) or a longtime police accountability activist — that would be my first choice,” he said. “But if it has to be an officer, I want someone who is committed to reform and accountability for the long term.” (A state law says a police chief must have completed at least two years of full-time commissioned law enforcement employment.)

Houston said the new chief must be “committed to breaking down the existing system” and will likely be drawn from outside the city “given how toxic the relationship right now” is between the department and the City Council.

Langlie, a first-time candidate whose namesake grandfather was both a Seattle mayor and Washington governor, said he’s looking for a chief cut from the same cloth as Kathleen O’Toole, who came to Seattle in 2014 from Boston and oversaw sweeping policy and training changes, including the implementation of body cameras, before stepping down in 2017.

“This is not going to be a job for the faint of heart,” said Langlie, who envisions a candidate “with a clean slate, no local baggage [and] fresh eyes.”

Echohawk, who served on the Community Police Commission, said she expects the CPC will play a key role in helping her find the right candidate, whose qualifications will include “zero tolerance for bad cops.”

She stressed that she will bargain a new contract with the Seattle Police Officers Guild (SPOG) that includes accountability measures abandoned by the City Council during the last negotiation. The city is negotiating a new contract this year, and the federal judge overseeing the consent decree has made it clear he will not allow the guild to negotiate on matters of accountability and constitutional policing.

Casey Sixkiller, another first-time candidate who worked as a deputy to Mayor Jenny Durkan, sees the new chief as a sort of change-agent finisher. He hopes they will concentrate not only on reforms but reverse an exodus that has seen the departure of approximately 270 officers in the past year and a half, which he said has resulted in increased response times and crime.

“The data is telling us that we don’t have enough cops,” said Sixkiller, who blames the City Council for favoring the voices of activists over impacted residents and businesses.

Jessyn Farrell, an attorney and senior vice president of Civic Ventures, said the city has “suffered from a lack of common purpose” and vision for what it wants from its police department. Her chief “will be someone who will be focused on the values that every person has worth … That every person should feel safe.

“We cannot do that without accountability and transparency,” she said, referring to recent revelations that text messages from the most disruptive weeks of last summer are missing from the phones of Durkan, Best and Fire Chief Harold Scoggins.

Candidate Lance Randall, a 55-year-old entrepreneur who has worked on economic development for the city and at a Rainier Valley nonprofit, said he won’t start a search until he’s had a chance to study salaries and ensure SPD funding stability, which he believes is crucial to attracting good candidates.

Best left the department after the City Council reacted to last summer’s violence by voting to cut SPD funding and her salary.

“We have to have our house in order and make sure … we present ourselves as an attractive place to come and be chief,” Randall said. “Right now, we don’t have that.”

Durkan, who is not seeking a second term, said she has no intention of launching a national search for a new police chief before she leaves office. Historically, each new mayor has had the opportunity to select a chief — and, like Randall, she doubts Seattle could currently attract quality candidates given the uncertainty surrounding the department’s budget and the council’s defunding efforts.

Durkan said whoever takes on the chief’s mantle will need to have broad community support, a tough hide, a willingness to promote members of a newer generation of police officers as well as bring in outsiders, and an ability to navigate Seattle’s choppy political waters without being political.

They must understand divisions in the community, she said, carrying the department through difficult times while keeping Seattle safe.

“There just has to be an unfailing commitment to true, equitable policing,” she said,

“and to recognizing the role that systemic racism has had on policing and the impact that has on community trust.”

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