Carmen Best confirmed as police chief in historic first

Carmen Best is confirmed at a Seattle City Council meeting on Aug. 13 (Photo courtesy of Seattle City Council via Flickr)

For the first time in its history, the Seattle Police Department will have an African-American chief holding the position permanently. After months of uncertainty and drama, in the end, Carmen Best, a native of the Pacific Northwest and 26-year veteran of the department, easily won the approval of the Seattle City Council, 8-0. Councilmember Rob Johnson was absent.

Speaking to the crowd after her confirmation, Best pledged she would be “making sure we have a department that’s fair and just and has equity. We’re committed to that on a daily basis and we’ll use community policing as a tool.”

At one point, Councilmember Lorena González asked those who supported Best, who had been serving in an interim capacity, to stand in City Hall. Nearly the entire crowded room stood in support. “Take it in, Chief Best,” she said. She added, “It’s a testament to the skill and to the work ethic and to the commitment you have to every single face in this audience and the faces they represent who are not in the audience.”

Best will take over a department in a precarious position — after more than five challenging years under a U.S. Justice Department consent decree to reform itself, SPD must now prove to a federal judge that the changes are real and lasting. U.S. District Court Judge James Robart has already once threatened to find the department out of compliance.

She will step into a job she knows well. Her predecessor, Kathleen O’Toole, made Best the number two in 2014, involving her intimately with the rebuilding of the troubled department. When O’Toole exited late last year, Mayor Jenny Durkan appointed Best to acting chief, making her the first African-American woman to hold the job — interim or otherwise. She held the position for nearly eight months. Harry Bailey was the department’s first African-American chief, but only held the position on an interim basis, in the first half of 2014.

Beyond just her time in leadership, Best has held ranks at every level, from patrol officer to public information officer, to patrol supervisor and more.

She’s also been a constant presence in the community, often appearing at meetings and public gatherings when O’Toole did not — reassuring the Chinatown/International District neighborhood the department was still investigating the death of Donnie Chin; attending iftars in Seattle’s East African community; keeping ties with leaders of Seattle’s historically Black churches.

The combination of department experience and community exposure earned Best as much buy-in as one could expect for a police chief candidate. Both the Seattle Police Officers Guild and community leaders lobbied City Hall for her selection.

“I think it’s an opportunity,” said President of the Guild Kevin Stuckey. “It’s historical in the sense that it’s the first permanent Black chief in the history of the city of Seattle. I think Chief Best has been groomed from early on in her career to be a leader in the department."

Best's path to the permanent job was strange and dramatic. It was a process that overshadowed the individual candidates and set off a continuing examination by the civilian Community Police Commission.

After announcing her candidacy, Best was widely seen as the favorite for the permanent position. However, she was not included in the final three candidates.

After several weeks of backlash from both rank-and-file officers and community members, candidate Cameron McLay announced he was withdrawing from the race for the job to take a more reform-focused position in Seattle. Best then took his place as a finalist.

Despite everything, Mayor Durkan has declined to second guess how the selection process unfolded. “I got the best chief of police,” she said at a news conference announcing Best’s nomination.

Best largely skated through her hearings before a mostly friendly Seattle City Council. However, council members made clear they wanted her to focus on bridging disparities in policing.

“I think we’re moving forward on those issues,” Best told the council. “Do we still have a ways to go and work to do? Absolutely. But we are working really hard on creating a culture of innovation and new ideas within the police department.”

Despite the notable support for Best entering the job, being chief is something of a tightrope walk between the demands of the community, departmental rank-and-file and City Hall.

Especially in the wake of the death of Charleena Lyles, an African-American woman who was shot and killed by police in front of her children in a Magnuson Park apartment last year, Best will continue to face pressure from community activists calling on further oversight and reform of the department.

Chief Best has also already faced pushback from the Seattle Police Officers Guild, the union representing the department’s rank-and-file. Best recently let go two officers, Kenneth Martin and Tabitha Sexton, for firing on a car. The King County Prosecutor’s Office declined to file charges against the officers, but Best fired them.

In a statement, the union responded, “The Seattle Police Officers Guild continues to be disappointed in the decision by the Seattle Police Department to terminate Officers Sexton and Martin, when the Prosecutors office clearly states the officers believed ‘the vehicle posed an immediate risk to the officers and the public.’ The officers will be appealing the termination decision to a civilian arbitrator.”

During her confirmation hearings, Best said “professional tension” between her and the union was inevitable.

From behind the dais, the council members on Monday heaped praise on Best. “You’re a good, kind human being and I’m proud that you’re going to be our chief of police,” said Councilmember Debora Juarez. 

Councilmember Mike O’Brien said, “I’m really proud of the work the city has done on police reform and at the same time the city has a long ways to go. I know you’re committed to that work.”

In her comments, Councilmember Kshama Sawant criticized SPD policing broadly and Best specifically. “This is not a case of good or bad apples,” she said. “The whole tree is rotten. The police and the state under capitalism enforce the interests of the billionaire class.”

Still, Sawant also voted yes, in "solidarity and unity" with the community members who called for Best's nomination.

Chief Best will inherit a department with a budget over $330 million dollars, more than 2,000 employees and nearly 1,500 sworn officers. In addition to winding down the reform process, Best will need to reign in overtime spending, improve the department’s technology, reduce property crime and manage a growing city.

Further, because of long-stalled contract negotiations between the officers’ union and the city, the department has struggled to attract new recruits. Best will need to finally close the door on these negotiations. President of the union Stuckey Monday called Best “instrumental” in those conversations. “We’ve still got some work to do,” he said, “but we’re getting very close.”

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About the Authors & Contributors

David Kroman

David Kroman

David Kroman is formerly a reporter at Crosscut, where he covered city politics.