As part of its confirmation process, the City Council has posted a list of the questions it directed to Carmen Best, Mayor Durkan’s nominee for Chief of Police, along with Best’s responses.
The full Q&A is worth a read — all 23 pages. Given the broad support for Best’s nomination, the questions could have been easy, but instead they are polite yet direct in asking her for thoughts on the tougher questions facing the department and its Chief. And for her part, Best chooses her words carefully while letting the Council know where she has strong opinions.
Here are some of the more insightful thoughts in Best’s responses:
- Best begins by saying “The number one priority for the Seattle Police Department is continuing to enhance community trust and confidence.” That is in line with the reports from the police monitor, which emphasized that SPD was making progress in reforming its practices but that the community trust in the department lagged significantly behind those changes. But more interestingly, Best’s response was to a question about budget priorities. “The budget of the SPD,” she continued, “must be critically assessed to ensure that in everything we do, our focus is on delivering the type of police services the people of Seattle expect.” She notes that “policing is no longer just handcuffs and car chases,” and requires delivering a wide array of services. But noting that with the breadth in services has come an increase in workload that has not been matched by staffing increases, Best says that there are cost savings in areas “other than personnel,” and that they could reduce overall staffing costs by hiring more officers because it would reduce overtime.
- Best says that the best way to reduce crime is through prevention, and that to accomplish that, SPD has been “laser-focused on positively engaging with young people across the city.” She wants to see more summer youth jobs, and more safe, constructive places for youth to go in the evenings. She would like to create a dedicated team within SPD to coordinate creation and the department’s participation in those activities.
- With regard to the persistent problems with SPD’s use of overtime, especially associated with special events, Best notes that it’s particularly problematic when multiple events are permitted on the same day or over the same weekend. She says that the issue is most severe between May and September.
- Addressing the prioritization of diversion and harm-reduction programs, Best says that she expects her officers to recognize when “we are not going to arrest our way out of a problem.” Yet she explains that there are situations when individuals who are victimizing others need to be arrested, and one of the main challenges in modern policing is telling the difference between the two. She also says that the other challenge is having the service locations to bring people to other than jail. Best also claims that SPD has embraced the LEAD diversion program, crisis intervention training, the Homeless Navigation Team, and Peace Circles — but that many of these programs don’t have independent funded and are staffed by officers and civilians pulled from other units. Best commits to supporting diversion and alternatives, but also argues that SPD should not be the home for these programs because they “are inherently meant to be outside of justice system involvement.”
- Best states her support for civilianizing some SPD positions “where officers are doing work that does not require a badge and a gun.”
- She is very clear and forceful in stating that SPD will not take part in immigration activities, will not make inquiries into immigration status, and will not support ICE activities. “It is not our role, we are not allowed to do it, and it harms community safety.”
- Best states her commitment to diversity hiring and recruitment, claiming that so far in 2018, 45% of new hires were part of a minority group, and 17% were female (vs. 13% nationally).
- With regard to ongoing problems managing off-duty and secondary employment among police officers, Best acknowledges that while the department has been trying to implement a timekeeping and scheduling system for officers, the city’s “consolidated IT process” (i.e. the re-organization of IT into one central city department that was ordered by former Mayor Murray) has prevented it from happening. “SPD is continuing to pursue an electronic system that can effectively manage all scheduling and staffing management, and is anticipating final guidance from the City on those solutions.”
- Responding to a question about holding supervisors accountable — an issue she was reportedly critiqued for during the earlier phases of the search process — she says, “I am a firm believer in personal responsibility. It will not help the Department to have supervisors managing their employees like children. If a supervisor fails to address violations, that is when they must be held accountable.”
- She notes that the department’s Early Intervention System, a requirement under the consent decree but which recent studies have shown to be ineffective (and which Crosscut’s David Kroman wrote about recently), is “insufficient at best.” She says that the department is actively participating in research efforts to identify a “meaningful and effective” alternative.
- Best points out the long list of stakeholders who must be involved in any changes to SPD’s approach to discipline: the federal judge overseeing the consent decree, the police monitoring team, the city’s executive branch, the City Council, the two unions representing SPD officers and supervisors, the Inspector General, the Office of Police Accountability, and the Community Police Commission.
- In response to an assertion in one of the Council’s questions that “When a police officer draws their gun, they are trained to use deadly force,” Best points out that through the first seven months of 2018, “officers of the Seattle Police Department pointed their firearms at individuals 223 times. In two of those instances an officer discharged their weapon. Officers are not trained to discharge their weapons if they raise them. Officers are trained to attempt to de-escalate situations until there is no other option.”
- Responding to a complaint that SPD has not been responsive to communications from the Council on a range of topics, Best notes the “remarkable number of requests for information daily” that SPD receives, on top of the more than 6200 public disclosure requests, which is 95% of all city requests. She says that SPD does not have the resources to match the volume. That said, she commits to an initial response to inquiries from within city government within two business days in most instances, while reserving the right to take longer to provide additional detail if warranted.
- When asked how much she believes implicit bias affects police behavior, Best responds, “I do not believe that police officers are affected by implicit bias any more than other people. Yes, there are historical, and current, issues of institutional racism in the criminal justice system, and the SPD is an active participant in local and national efforts to better understand and address these points.”
- When asked whether she supports reviving the Community Service Officer program, which the City Council budgeted for but Mayor Durkan recently put on hold until after Best’s confirmation, she was noncommittal. “I am committed to considering all additional staffing opportunities to support the Department’s mission to provide the community with the best police service possible. The Community Service Officer program was a well-received program during its initial inception and there are many current needs that a re-launch could address. In a time of tight budgets the program was cut. When the CSO re-launch was proposed the City was experiencing much different economic forecasts. This is why it is important that we carefully consider what this program would do and how extensive a re-implementation would be.”
- Addressing a question about general criminal justice reform, Best says that “an over-reliance on incarceration carries with it temporary gains at very high costs. We are all committed to identifying and implementing solutions like diversion and harm reduction, that can reduce recidivism and strengthen relationships with communities.”
- Best throws her support behind expansion of the LEAD diversion program “to serve new areas and needs as appropriate.” That might include covering law violations due to behavioral health issues or extreme poverty, including new crimes such as theft, property destruction, criminal trespass or obstructing an officer. LEAD traditionally has been focused on low-level drug and prostitution offenses.
- When asked how she would address “predatory behavior and aggressive drug sales that we see in Pioneer Square and along 3rd Avenue,” Best claimed that “focused deterrence and intervention strategies can change an area without an over-reliance on formal enforcement.” She points to Westlake Park and Pioneer Square as examples of multiple stakeholders coming together to “reclaim a space, activate it, and maintain it as a place for public, lawful use,” though she admits that various approaches along 3rd Avenue have not had similar success.
- Best affirms her commitment to data-driven policing, and to being transparent with that data both inside and outside city government.
Overall, Best seems to be attempting a delicate balance between supporting rank-and-file officers and championing further reform. To that end, the one obvious question that wasn’t asked was how Best sees her approach as different from her predecessor, former Chief Kathleen O’Toole. Perhaps the Council members will ask that in person when they interview her at a public Council meeting next week.