Carmen Best back in contention for SPD Chief as one finalist withdraws

In a surprise turn of events this evening, Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office announced that former Pittsburgh Police Chief Cameron McLay had withdrawn from consideration as one of three finalists to replace Kathleen O’Toole as Seattle’s Chief of Police. In addition, current Interim Chief Carmen Best, who was one of the semi-finalists but had not made the final cut, took McLay’s place as a finalist, sidestepping an ongoing controversy over why she was not originally selected as a finalist.

The City Charter is oddly specific, and yet vague, about how the Chief of Police is chosen: it says that the Mayor must choose one of three candidates after a “competitive examination.” It doesn’t specify what the competitive examination entails, nor does it say how candidates are chosen to submit the examination, who administers the examination, or who “grades” the examination results to select the final three. This got the Mayor in some hot water earlier this spring, when the search committee she appointed recommended five candidates, and then a separately-appointed examination committee reduced the list to three — eliminating local favorite Best — behind closed doors. Since then, the Mayor’s Office has made efforts to appease critics of the process, most notably the CPC, by releasing many of the records from the competitive examination process. But doubts still remained about why Best didn’t make the original list of finalists. The CPC called for re-running the selection process, while the Mayor pushed forward with the three chosen finalists, organizing site visits to their home towns and interviews here in Seattle for the candidates with the CPC, community members, other stakeholders, and ultimately the Mayor herself. While Durkan had earlier expressed a desire to nominate someone by the end of June, that self-imposed deadline passed without a decision — and without a path for her to avoid having her pick undermined by the still-brewing controversy.

That all changed today. According to the press release from the Mayor’s office, after two conversations with McLay — the first a few weeks ago, and the second yesterday, Durkan and McLay agreed that he was better suited for a role more directly involved in the city’s police reform efforts. From the press release:

“I met with former Chief McLay, reviewed his competitive exam materials, and have spoken with a number of individuals including the Mayor of Pittsburgh about his work.  He understands the complexity of policing and has been a national leader on police reform. In our first conversation in June, he indicated that his strongest passion is in reform. The Seattle Police Department remains under federal court order and is in a critical two year compliance sustainment period. This upcoming week, Federal Judge Robart has called all parties to court for a status report, and I was briefed by the City Attorney and SPD ahead of the conference,” said Mayor Jenny Durkan. “One of my key priorities as Mayor has been to sustain reforms while continuing to build our nation-leading police department. I have been exploring a range of options to not just sustain reform, but continue to improve the department to meet the needs of our fast growing city.  We need additional expertise to help the City in assessing our path forward under the Consent Decree and our work with the DOJ and the Monitoring Team. I talked with Chief McLay this past week and we agreed that assisting on reform efforts was the best way he could help Seattle.” 

“As a law enforcement officer and former Chief of Police for the City of Pittsburgh, my passion has been on the processes for creating transformational change and organizational excellence. After a lot of thought about how I can make the biggest impact, and after conversations with my family and with Mayor Durkan over the last several weeks, it is clear to me that I can most effectively support Seattle’s continued reform efforts outside of the role of Chief of Police, which is why I’ve withdrawn from consideration to be the Seattle Police Department’s next Chief of Police. It was an honor to be considered for the Chief of Police role in one of America’s great cities, and I look forward to continue my conversations with Mayor Durkan and the City about how I can best support Seattle’s steps toward meaningful and lasting reform, grounded in a firm commitment to the best practices of 21st century policing,” said former Pittsburgh Police Chief Cameron McLay. 

When asked for more details on what kind of role Durkan envisions for McLay, such as potentially one in the Office of Police Accountability or the newly-formed Office of the Inspector General, a spokesperson for the Mayor said, “She has not offered a specific position/title – she wanted to discuss further with the McLay, the City Attorney, the Monitor, DOJ, IG, Council, CPC, SPD and the next police chief, and others on the scope and specific role to leverage his expertise. As she noted in her statement, she has been thinking through a range of options, but ultimately, she envisions him advising the City on reform and path forward on the Consent Decree. ”

McLay was a controversial figure in Pittsburgh, as the search committee’s collection of media coverage on him shows. He was brought in following his predecessor’s corruption scandal and with a charter to enact broad reforms in the police department. It appears he moved aggressively to do so with significant success, though straining the relationship between the department and the police officers’ union in the process. McLay also had a small scandal of his own when he appeared in full dress uniform at the 2016 Democratic National Convention, which some interpreted as a violation of the rules prohibiting officers from campaigning for candidates on the job or in uniform. He announced his resignation in November 2016, after only two years in the job.

After McLay officially withdrew his name from consideration yesterday, Durkan asked the committee that administered the competitive examination to reconvene and provide a third candidate, so as to fulfill the requirements under the City Charter. The committee met today and decided to add Best rather than Jorge Villegas, the other semi-finalist who didn’t make the original list of three finalists.

Earlier this evening, Best tweeted out that she is “thrilled” to be back in the running for the position.

As of this writing, the CPC has not made a statement regarding today’s announcements.

Today’s announcement is politically expedient in that it takes the pressure off Mayor Durkan to re-do the finalist selection process. She has not announced a new timeline for making a decision, but the three candidates — Ely Reyes, Eddie Frizell, and Best — will all be in Seattle this coming week for meetings with stakeholders and a formal interview with the Mayor.

In related news, U.S. District Court Judge James Robart, who oversees the consent decree, has scheduled a status conference for Monday afternoon; the status of the search process for a new Chief of Police is likely to be a topic discussed, as is the status of negotiations between the city and SPOG, the union representing SPD officers. Judge Robart has withheld his approval of the police-accountability legislation passed by the City Council last year until he can be assured that there are no conflicts between that legislation and the terms of a new contract. That said, he has found the city in “full and effective compliance” with the consent decree and moved the city into its two-year “sustainment phase.”

Here’s the complete history of Seattle’s search for a new Chief of Police, with timeline and documents.