Mayor Jenny Durkan defended her office’s tumultuous handling of the search for a permanent police chief, saying Monday that the search was going according to plan despite a weekend of breaking news and a last-minute reversal of fortunes for acting Police Chief Carmen Best.
“I think what people should read into this is we are going to make sure that we do everything that we can to make sure we get the best chief possible,” Durkan said.
Mayor Durkan's Monday defense came after a turbulent weekend that started with Best officially out of the running only to end on Sunday with Steve Miletich of the Seattle Times reporting, based on unnamed sources within the city, that the once disqualified Best “most likely will be named the department’s next permanent chief.”
Durkan told reporters Monday that Miletich's reporting was inaccurate and that all three finalists were still being considered.
Durkan made a surprise appearance earlier in the afternoon at a federal court hearing concerning Seattle Police Department reforms. The weekend’s busy news cycle was expected to come up at the hearing, but U.S. Judge James Robart, who has overseen court-mandated reforms at the department since 2012, declined to wade into the murky waters. He told the crowded courtroom that he “was prepared to introduce remarks about acting Chief Carmen Best, but that will hold for another day.”
Durkan’s sudden reversal with Best is reminiscent of this spring’s head tax fuckup at the City Council, where the council unanimously passed the so-called “Amazon tax” only to rescind it less than a month later (potentially breaking the law in the process). In both instances, the lawmakers failed to calculate public sentiment and ended up gaffing their way back in alignment with popular opinion. The City Council may end up spending at least $4,000 in tax payer funds to resolve a lawsuit over how they rescinded the head tax.
No one has sued the city over Durkan’s police chief hiring process, but the mayor's after-hours dealing over the weekend certainly seems unconventional.
Best, a 26-year veteran of the department and the current acting chief, was initially selected as a semi-finalist by a large search committee, but she did not make the cut when a committee composed of mostly Durkan’s staff members further winnowed that list of five semi-finalists down to three finalists. Best’s absence immediately drew anger from Best’s supporters, but Durkan initially defended her office’s decision.
And as of Friday, Best was still officially out of the running to be the city’s permanent police chief. But that changed Saturday when it was announced—first by the Seattle Times and then in a press release from Durkan—that Best was now a finalist after one of the other three finalists, former Pittsburgh Police Chief Cameron McLay, had withdrawn his name from consideration. By Sunday, the Seattle Times reported that Best practically already had the job.
Best’s deep roots in the department and the city was initially cited as a reason for not selecting her as a finalist. To implement reforms, the department would need an “outsider to be brought as the next chief,” search committee member and former Mayor Tim Burgess said at the press conference announcing the finalists in May. But it appears Best’s broad base of local support, which spans from police union leadership like Seattle Police Guild Vice President Sgt. Rich O’Neill to police reform advocates like Rev. Harriett Walden, was able to give her a second life in the selection process.
Durkan told reporters Monday that she had not pressured McLay into removing his name to make room for Best.
"It had been clear that his real passion would prefer to be on the reform side than the chief side and we agreed that would be a good thing and he decided to formally withdraw," Durkan said.
Durkan said she is now looking for a different position for McLay within the city, possibly overseeing SPD's court-ordered reforms.
"I think the exact role has to be worked out," Durkan said, adding "we have agreed that we want there to be a role."
The city is now behind schedule when it comes to appointing a new police chief, at least according to Burgess, who said the city expected to appoint a new police chief by the end of June. Durkan declined to estimate when she would make her choice, adding that Burgess was not the mayor when he provided his timetable.
"It was never our schedule," Durkan said. "This is one of the decisions where you don’t use a microwave. I think it will be soon, but more important than soon is that I think this [candidate] is the right chief."