The movement to defund Seattle police is not a personal attack

Chief Carmen Best's resignation must not distract from the work of overhauling public safety and investing in Black communities.

Chief Carmen Best

Police Chief Carmen Best, the first Black woman to lead Seattle's police department, announced she will be stepping down in September following cuts to the budget that would reduce the department by as many as 100 officers. (Dorothy Edwards/Crosscut)

Last week, Carmen Best announced her resignation as chief of the Seattle Police Department effective Sept. 2, 2020. Her resignation came just hours after a Seattle City Council vote imposing spending restrictions on SPD’s budget, including reductions to salaries of the non-union command staff. 

As news spread of the chief’s decision, a slew of articles, Facebook posts and tweets condemned the majority women of color city council for “humiliating a Black woman” and “forcing” her to resign. Some decried the move as a form of “anti-Blackness.” Others compared Best’s resignation to “a death.”

What actually happened was this: The council lowered Best’s salary to meet the maximum cap of the chief’s pay zone — $275,000, or a roughly 6% cut. Meanwhile, the salaries of the 12 executive members of the command staff were reduced to the bottom end of their designated bracket. (For perspective, nine of the 13 executive command staff make more than every governor in the United States.) To initiate these cuts, the city council had to work around a major roadblock: the collective bargaining agreement and union labor laws. These make it impossible to enact salary cuts for all officers across the board without lengthy lawsuits and/or a new collective bargaining agreement, which may take years. As a result, the council reduced the salaries of the non-union command staff to match the lowest rung of their individual pay zone, the one exception being Best, whose salary was only lowered to the maximum — the highest rung —  in the applicable pay zone.

As a Black woman, I am sure that Best has experienced racial and gender discrimination, including in her time as a police officer. However, the reduction of the entire command staff’s pay, along with the decision of the Seattle City Council to exercise its power to limit the budget of SPD, was not a personal attack on a Black woman. It is also — and this seems obvious to say — not comparable to a death. It was a reasonable response to a growing youth- and Black-led movement to defund armed police and invest in both Black communities and community-based public health and safety for all.

The truth is, the Seattle Police Department has a long and sordid history of violence against communities of color. This history has been buoyed by a police budget that has grown unchecked and unaccountably for years, without a real return on public safety for all of Seattle’s residents, especially low-income Black, Indigenous people of color and queer and trans people of color. Unfortunately, but rather predictably, the violence of SPD did not relent under Best. Since 2012, the first year of SPD’s consent decree, the police have killed 28 people, including Charleena Lyles (2017), Iosia Faletogo (2019) and Shaun Fuhr (2020). The rolls of people shot and killed by the police are disproportionately people of color and nearly all working class.

Racism is baked into the very structure of policing in this country; it is why Black, brown and Indigenous Seattle residents continue to report deep distrust of police — regardless of the fact of a Black police chief and an increasingly multiracial police force. In this regard, Seattle is no different from Minneapolis or Ferguson. The impossible task of rooting out anti-Black racism from SPD was always too large for any one person.

Anti-racism is more than diversity. It is more than making a Black woman the head of an inherently racist department, expecting her to change it on her own, and then using her as a scapegoat when people from all backgrounds rise up and demand a real return on our investment in public safety. It’s unfair and all too common to put Black people at the head of white-built institutions without the support needed to transform them. The city of Seattle’s entire approach to public safety requires a wholesale structural change, which no one, including Best, could make on her own. And so long as Mayor Durkan, Seattle Police Officer Guild President Mike Solan and Chief Best continue to make excuses for the failures of police reform in Seattle and the continued violence of SPD against communities of color, poor communities and protesters, that change will not come about.

Last week’s cuts to the salaries of Best and her command staff show that the Seattle City Council started to do what is necessary to make this change.

And if the rest of the city really wants to do something to uplift Black people in Seattle-King County, then they should understand that decades of broken promises and misguided solutions have failed the Black community. For those who doubt this, how do you explain away the fact that, in the year 2020, a typical white family owns $171,000 in wealth compared to the $17,600 in wealth of a typical Black family? All over the United States, including Martin Luther King Jr. County, if the inequality trajectory of the last three decades continues, wealth for the median Black family will reach zero by 2082.

Best’s resignation cannot be allowed to be a distraction. She chose to be a police officer. She chose to be police chief. She chose to continuously defend the department and their actions. She chose to resign at a moment when the movement for Black lives is opening up a door for a paradigm shift in how the city funds, approaches and implements public safety and public health.

In this movement, people in power can choose to be a barrier, to be a support, or to get out of the way. The movement in defense of Black lives intends to effect meaningful structural changes to public safety that protect and value Black, Indigenous, queer, trans and poor peoples in a way we have never been protected or valued before. Changes that have not yet occurred under the Seattle mayor or police chief regardless of their race, gender or sexual orientation. As the movement to defund the police continues, jobs and pay will inevitably change, and that will likely include layoffs. But it will also mean innovative job creation, improved material conditions of many oppressed communities in our city, and, ultimately, better public health and safety for all Seattleites.

In the end, the defund movement is not a personal attack on any one officer. It is a movement, it is inevitable, and it is necessary.

About the Authors & Contributors

Nikkita Oliver

Nikkita Oliver is a contributing columnist covering politics, race and culture.