This morning the City Council moved Carmen Best’s nomination as Chief of Police out of committee, setting her up for an easy confirmation vote on Monday — though there’s a hint that it might not be unanimous.
After an initial discussion, a round of written Q&A, and a public hearing, the confirmation process concluded this morning with a live Q&A session followed by a committee vote. Four Council members — Gonzalez, Sawant, Mosqueda, and Johnson — lobbed questions at her for about an hour. Mostly the questions were thoughtful but straightforward and predictable. However, Council member Sawant seemed to be hunting for ammunition to oppose Best’s nomination.
Several questions from Gonzalez, Johnson and Mosqueda circled around how SPD deals with the homelessness crisis, and the persistent meme that the police department is under orders from the City Council to “stand down” and has tied police officers’ hands. The Council members reiterated that it’s a myth with no basis in fact, and asked Best how they could collectively combat the myth. Best responded by confirming that the department does not have a stand-down approach to crime, but at the same time will not criminalize homelessness. “Certainly we are not going to not address a crime issue,” she said. At the same time, Best suggested that there is a need for public education on what is, and is not, a crime.
Council member Mosqueda asked Best if she was open to bringing in additional mental health professionals into SPD, potentially even to ride-along with officers. Best didn’t give a straight answer, but emphasized that SPD officers are required to take a minimum of 8 hours of crisis intervention training, and many take a full 40-hour course. The topic came up in the context of the shooting of Charleena Lyles last year. “We are not in the business of trying to take lives, but to save lives,” Best said.
Gonzalez noted the legacy of discrimination and racism that has been embedded in the institution of policing, and emphasized her expectation that Best will continue the reforms underway in the department. Mosqueda added her view that capitalism also has played a role in policing, which resulted in police who often protected property over people. She expressed her belief that putting the priority on the protection of property doesn’t translate into building trust with the people that the department is entrusted to serve.
Gonzalez said that she believed in the importance of “procedural justice.” “In order to create the cultural change within a police department that is necessary, it’s important for rank-and-file officers to feel like they have the same level of transparency from management that is expected of them by the public.” In practice, she said, that means that rank-and-file officers need to file like they are being heard and given a “fair shake” in an environment where they are being asked to do more — and more complex — work. But she also noted that in return, when the rules are violated and policies are not followed, SPD leadership and city leaders must “hold the line on making sure that the discipline is appropriate for whatever the circumstance might be.”
Sawant’s questions were much more pointed:
- She asked Best whether racially-biased policing is a serious problem in the police department, and if so what she intended to do about it. Best refused to give a yes or no answer, instead emphasizing that “everyone comes in with biases” and that SPD does implicit bias and other training programs. Sawant pushed her again for a one-word answer, extending it to both racially-biased policing and excessive use of force. Best pushed back, saying, “It’s so much more complex than that,” and spoke to the fact that the department has been found in full and effective compliance with the consent decree, and continues to work on practices, procedures and accountability measures. “So I think we’re moving forward on those issues,” she said. “Do we still have a way to go and work to do? Absolutely. But we are really working hard to create a culture of innovation and new ideas within the police department. It’s really important that we do that.”
- Sawant brought up the January 2017 protest at Sea-Tac Airport in which officers from multiple jurisdictions (including Seattle) were called in to assist Sea-Tac Police in crowd control, and some officers were accused of using excessive force. She asked Best whether she believed it was a correct and justified use of SPD resources, and what she would do differently had she been in charge. Best responded by explaining how mutual aid agreements work with other jurisdictions, and making a distinction between the issue being protested and the public safety concerns. “We can’t take a position on those issues. If it becomes a dangerous situation for public safety, we’re going to be there to help.” Sawant bristled, saying that “five thousand ordinary people” participating in peaceful protest wasn’t an apt comparison to a public safety issue. “What the community wants to hear is what you would do differently than Chief O’Toole. I don’t believe that these are isolated incidents, and is there any basis to believe that things will be dramatically different?” Best reiterated that the police needs to respect people’s rights to free speech, but “we also need to make sure that people are kept safe in the environment.” Noting that she often hears from both sides that they think the police is taking the other side, she said, “We literally don’t want to be the target or the highlight of any of these demonstrations, pro or con. We just want to make sure that public safety is adhered to.”
- Sawant asked what Best thought of the support that she received from SPOG, the police officers’ union, during the search process. Sawant noted that in her view SPOG has been “one of the obstacles to reform.” “There is always going to be a professional tension,” Best replied, “but no one gains if you don’t all strive to make things better for the work environment and the officers. I’m willing to work to make things better, to get reforms through, as we all work through the contractual obligations that we have, The professional tension is just natural given where we are.
Sawant emphasized that she wanted to schedule a private one-on-one conversation with Best later this week. That isn’t unusual, except that thirty seconds before the vote to move Best’s nomination forward Sawant left today’s meeting, clearly to avoid having to vote (or abstain) on the record. Looking back on Sawant’s questions, she looks to be building a case for a “no” vote on confirmation that will be received positively by her base, despite Best’s wide popularity. She can spin Best’s answers as validation that she will be no different from her predecessor, is willing to acknowledge neither racial bias nor excessive use of force, and is too close to SPOG to be a leader in true police reform.
Why would she do this? Because critique of SPD — and policing in general — is a mainstay of Sawant’s political platform, and voting to confirm Best would make her an on-the-record supporter of Best’s leadership of the department and undermine her ability to critique her and SPD in the future. It’s a complicated political calculus, however, since her base was key to forcing transparency in the search process when Best was eliminated (and probably forcing Mayor Durkan to choose Best in the end). Either way, Sawant is going to burn some bridges. We’ll see how she decides to vote on Monday (Council members may abstain in committee, but not on final Council votes).
Committee chair Gonzalez wrapped up the session by noting that she and Council President Harrell are working on a letter to Best, to be added to the official record, that spells out the Council’s expectations for her as Chief of Police. We’ll see that on Monday, when Best’s nomination should get easy confirmation regardless of how Sawant chooses to vote.