By GENE JOHNSON
SEA.TTLE (AP) — On July 16, the mayor of Seattle picked interim Police Chief Carmen Best to lead the department on a permanent basis as it tries to sustain reforms designed to eliminate biased policing and unnecessary force.
Best is the first Black woman to lead the department, and if confirmed by the City Council, she would replace Kathleen O’Toole, who stepped down at the end of last year.
“The community support shown for the Seattle Police Department, especially over the last few weeks, has been inspiring,” Best told the Northwest Asian Weekly. “I’d like to harness this energy and channel it into ways we can all work together for a safer Seattle, with equitable police services for all. I look forward to working with the Asian Pacific Islander community to achieve that end.”
Despite her popularity with officers and community leaders, Best was initially passed over by a search committee that named three finalists from outside the department. After an uproar, Best’s name was added when another finalist, former Pittsburgh Chief Cameron McLay, withdrew from consideration.
“It’s been a whirlwind,” said Best. The other finalists were Ely Reyes, an assistant chief in Austin, Texas, and Eddie Frizell, an inspector with the Minneapolis Police Department.
Search committee leaders had said they wanted an outsider to help reforms at the department take hold.
Mayor Jenny Durkan told a news conference announcing the appointment, “I have no question that Carmen Best is the person to lead our City’s police department … For everyone who knows Chief Best, they have seen her deliver results. They have seen her lead. They have seen her commitment to public safety, to lasting reform, and to community policing.”
“We look forward to collaborating with Carmen to bring true meaning to community policing and diversity within the SPD ranks, especially with her upper level command staff,” said Frank Irigon, community leader.
Lawrence Pang, former president of Seattle Chinese Chamber of Commerce, echoed that sentiment.
“Knowing that Chief Best has been head of the community outreach team, I have confidence that the relationship between SPD and the community will be better in her leadership. Mayor Durkan made the right choice,” he said.
The U.S. Justice Department began investigating Seattle police following a series of questionable uses of force, including the unjustified shooting of a Native American woodcarver in 2010. Seattle agreed to reforms in 2012 after the DOJ found officers were too quick to use force, especially in low-level situations, as well as troubling indications of biased policing.
Since then, the department has overhauled nearly all aspects of its work, including how officers are trained, how and when they use force, and how such episodes are documented and reviewed. The changes have brought a stunning drop in how often officers use serious force — with no increase in crime or officer injuries, according to the court-appointed monitor overseeing the reforms, Merrick Bobb.
A federal judge ruled in January that Seattle police had achieved full compliance with the reforms, which were mandated by a Justice Department consent decree in 2012.
Durkan served as the U.S. attorney in Seattle during the DOJ investigation, and she and Best both said they are committed to ensuring the city sustains and improves upon the reforms even as it grows rapidly, thanks largely to hiring by Amazon and other tech companies.
The department will need to hire more officers as the city deals with that growth, including the complex challenges of homelessness, mental illness, and substance abuse.
A military veteran, Best joined the department in 1992 and has worked in a wide variety of roles, including patrol, media relations, narcotics, and operations. She served as deputy chief under O’Toole before Durkan picked her to become interim chief on Jan. 1.
Ruth Bayang contributed to this report.