‘Can’t Do It’: Chief Resigns Amid Seattle’s Divide Over Policing

SEATTLE — As Seattle embarked on one of the most ambitious police restructuring plans in the country in recent weeks, its chief, Carmen Best, said she felt not only left out of the process but the target of vindictive salary cuts.

On Monday night, as she announced her resignation, Ms. Best said she had been left in tears by an email from a new Black recruit. The officer said he had been ecstatic to join a department headed by Ms. Best, the first Black woman to lead the city’s police force. But under an effort to drastically reduce the police department budget, Ms. Best said, the man — among many hired to help diversify the force — will most likely lose his job.

“That, for me, I’m done — can’t do it,” Ms. Best said Tuesday as she explained her decision to step down.

As cities across the country grapple with how to revamp policing to address persistent racism, Seattle has offered a window into the challenges that occur when city officials begin identifying the cuts that may be necessary. Seattle has embarked on one of the most ambitious police restructuring plans in the nation, gaining a veto-proof majority among progressives on the City Council who are determined to heed the weeks of protests that shut down part of the city this spring.

In Minneapolis, where the death of George Floyd in police custody sparked nationwide outrage, city leaders have moved to disband the police department entirely and create a new public safety structure from the ground up. But that proposal has stalled amid questions about when it might appear on the ballot — perhaps not until next year.

In Oakland, Calif., despite broad public support for police funding cuts that could reach 50 percent, the City Council last month rejected some of the proposed changes and punted to a task force that will study the issue. Nearby, in Berkeley, officials have touted a possible 50 percent cut but have only managed to do 12 percent so far. New York’s debate ended with frustration on all sides, with some deriding the $1 billion transferred out of policing as a budget trick. Other cities with earnest goals for defunding or restructuring have been locked in debates over the size of cuts or the methods for reform.

But in Seattle, a majority of the City Council in recent weeks has endorsed the idea of a 50 percent budget cut, and members have explored some specific cuts to get close to that target when next year’s budget is finalized in November.

The council also took an initial step on Monday, voting to approve a plan that would eliminate about 100 officers from the force, along with other changes to the department.

“We always have to think beyond what is normally considered realistic and possible,” said Lisa Herbold, chairwoman of the council’s public safety and human services committee.

Ms. Best, who has been the target of protests over the tactics used by the police to contain demonstrations, has vehemently objected to the extent of the cuts and said she was not invited to help draft the plan for reforms. As she announced her decision to retire in the coming weeks, she said on Tuesday that the council was showing a lack of respect for officers. Efforts by the council to cut her salary and those of her executive team, she said, felt personally vindictive.

Ms. Herbold said the loss of Ms. Best was “a staggering loss to leaders of the Black and brown community.”

“I am deeply and sincerely sorry that the chief feels council’s actions have been disrespectful toward individual officers and that our journey to reimagine community safety has been personally directed at her,” Ms. Herbold said in a statement.

Mayor Jenny Durkan, in a tearful news conference on Tuesday, said she was disappointed that Ms. Best was leaving and described her as the right person to help reimagine policing based on not only her 28 years in the police department, but her life as a Black woman in Seattle.

“We had the chief that not only believes in the importance of reimagining policing, she was the person, and probably still will be the person, that helps lead the way for our nation,” Ms. Durkan said.

President Trump has been critical of cities that he says have not done enough to crack down on the protests that followed Mr. Floyd’s death, and Attorney General William P. Barr on Tuesday was quick to single out Ms. Best’s resignation to highlight what he called “the real costs of irresponsible proposals to defund the police.”

Ms. Best had drawn criticism from protesters as a result of the sometimes harsh tactics used by officers during the turbulent weeks when thousands of people took to the streets this summer. Some demonstrators went recently to Chief Best’s neighborhood outside the city to protest at her home, but were rebuffed by neighbors with guns.

The King County Equity Now Coalition, which has helped suggest policing goals for the council to consider, including the 50 percent budget reduction, said Tuesday that racial violence at the police department had not ended under Chief Best because the task of rooting out racism was too large for any one person. The department requires “wholesale structural change,” the group said.

“We’ve already seen hundreds of years of failed promises and failed solutions — by the government, private and philanthropic sectors — with no real concern or true sense of urgency for the Black community’s well-being,” the coalition wrote on Twitter.

The group Black Lives Matter Seattle-King County, which has called for cuts to the police budget but not a full 50 percent, said in a statement that the council had forced Ms. Best out of the job and called for members to “stop prioritizing performative action that solely suggests the appearance of change.”

“We demand transparency and accountability for the series of actions and inactions that led to Chief Best’s resignation,” the group said.

Chief Best and Ms. Durkan had proposed smaller cuts of nearly 20 percent from the police budget and strongly opposed the council’s plans for deeper cuts.

But Kshama Sawant, a council member, expressed outrage that colleagues were not moving faster.

“It represents a total abdication of responsibility — an abdication of responsibility in the context of the historic movement for Black lives,” Ms. Sawant said.

Many residents at the public hearing on Monday also expressed disappointment that the council was not moving fast enough. But the sentiment was not unanimous; some members of the public said more officers were needed, pointing to a new round of protests on Sunday night that left windows smashed at several businesses.

The call for hiring more police officers was embraced by some on the council a year ago, when it approved bonuses to help ramp up the hiring of officers.

The proposed cuts now under discussion would include transferring the 911 call center and parking enforcement from the Police Department’s control to other city departments. The city is also exploring the creation of a public safety department that could take on some other tasks currently handled by the police.

The budget cuts approved on Monday included eliminating the mounted patrol unit and school resource officers, along with cuts to the department’s SWAT team. The council had proposed a steep cut to Chief Best’s salary, but backtracked on that plan on Monday.