Acting Police Chief Carmen Best and the two other people in the running to be Seattle’s next police chief spent Wednesday evening in the heart of the Central District, where a packed crowd of police reform advocates grilled the prospective candidates on how they would reform the city.
Best, who until last weekend wasn’t even in the running for the permanent police chief position, was a clear favorite with the mostly black crowd. Her 45-minute time slot was filled with questions and answers that struck an almost jovial tone.
The same couldn’t be said for the other two candidates, Austin Police Department’s Ely Reyes, and Minneapolis Police Department’s Eddie Frizell, who were on the receiving end of pointed questions that occasionally came with barbed follow-ups.
Best’s friendly treatment is in some ways surprising, considering she currently has power over the 1,400 police officers in the city and spent 26 years working in a department that was very recently found to be depriving the local black community of their constitutional rights.
Best’s most difficult question of the night came from Katrina Johnson, the cousin of Charleena Lyles, a pregnant black woman killed by SPD police last June, who asked Best why she never responded to questions asked by the Lyles family.
“You told us… that you would get answers for us, as people in the community grieving, and that never happened. We are still waiting for those answers,” Johnson said. “If you can’t get back to us as a family and find a way forward how do I know you are going to do what you need to do as a police chief?”
Best told Johnson that she was unable to give much more information about the case because the county had not completed the inquest hearing into Lyle’s death.
And with that, the event moved on, with no follow-up questions about Lyles death included.
Best frequently drew stories from her long SPD career during her 45 minutes with the crowd. She regaled stories of fielding calls at the East Precinct 25 years ago from racists asking to have 6-year-old black kids arrested, of regularly jogging around Green Lake, and pointed out that the folks at Blue Water Bistro just east of the Central District know her by name.
Best even got into the case of SPD Officer Cynthia Whitlatch, who was fired last year for arresting an elderly black man for simply walking down the street. Best said she testified against Whitlatch because “Her comments clearly showed that she was a racist. I testified in that case because I don’t want to protect a racist.”
Best finished with an appeal to her hometown status: “This is my city, I care about this place and I know most of the people in this room by name. If I’m not the one that can help you out and protect you then I want to know who it is.” To which the crowd responded with enthusiastic clapping and even a few cheers mixed in.
The audience was more unrelenting to the other two candidates. Frizell leaned heavily into his identity as a black man and spoke to the challenges that he faced as the first member of his family to attend college, which the audience seemed to appreciate.
“I looked forward to this all day because this is the first time that I got to sit before individuals that I consider my own,” Frizell said. “The one thing that I cannot be questioned on is 55 years of experience as a subject matter black man.”
Frizell fielded a number of thorny questions during his 45 minutes. Andre Taylor, the moderator of the event and the brother of Che Taylor, who was killed by SPD officers in 2016, asked Frizell if he ever fired an officer after an officer unjustifiably killed someone. When Frizell said he “did not have the authority to fire that officer at the time” the crowd vocally groaned with disappointment.
Taylor even asked Frizell to estimate “percentage-wise, how many good officers are on the force?” When Frizell at first demurred with “there’s more good than bad,” Taylor pushed further, until Frizell relented and estimated that 20 percent of police officers are bad officers.
Nikkita Oliver, an activist and former mayoral candidate, directed a particularly pointed question at Frizell when she asked him to agree that policing is inherently unjust.
“I am looking for a police chief that will admit that the institution of policing is inherently flawed. What I want to know is what you would do to divest from the policing institution and actually undo trauma and help communities?” Oliver asked.
Frizell, who himself is a police officer, naturally responded that cops were, in fact, necessary.
“The bottom line is yeah, you’ve gotta have guardians and protectors out there. That just has to happen,” Frizell said.
When Oliver asked the same question to Best thirty minutes earlier she phrased it in a decidedly less thorny fashion.
“Are you willing to divest from a highly militarized police force and move resources into public health strategies that will actually uproot things that push people into the system?” Oliver asked Best.
Best fielded the softball question with ease: “Actually that’s a pretty easy answer, yes,” Best replied.
By the time Reyes took a seat at the center of the room over two hours into the forum the crowd had noticeably emptied and seemed bored by the assistant police chief from Austin. There was clear chatter from the crowd during Reyes opening statement, which told the story of his challenging upbringing (he said his father is currently a wanted felon) and his heartbreaking family life (he’s lost two young children from illness).
Reyes, like Frizell, was forced to go on record with pointed questions. When asked how he would deal with the influence of police unions he said: “I don’t think a union should be an obstacle to holding a police offer accountable, it’s either right or it’s wrong.”
Best, who is a favorite of SPD’s police unions and is currently running a department that is in the midst of three years of contentious and unsuccessful union negotiations, was not asked any questions about unions.
When Reyes was asked about white supremacists and racists infiltrating police unions across the country he told the crowd that wasn’t the case at his department in Austin.
“They can’t even have tattoos that represent any of those organization,” Reyes said. “Not in my organization, I have not seen it.”
Taylor responded succinctly, “You wear glasses?” and proceeded to conclude the event.
After the crowd worked it’s way out of the room at the Seattle Vocational Institute on Yesler Way, the air warm and stale with the late day's summer sun still shining through the windows, I asked Taylor why Best seemed to get a much easier set of questions.
“Well, the community knows her. A lot of those questions have been talked about over her 27 years of being here, so she’s not a foreign face to the community. Seattle is very, very apprehensive about new people coming,” Taylor said.
That support is one of the reasons Best was even in the room in the first place. Best didn’t make it into the final round of finalists when they were announced in May. But community uproar over her absence, which came from both police unions and the reform advocates in the room, forced Mayor Jenny Durkan to find a way to get Best back into the running this past weekend.
She now “most likely will be named the department’s next permanent chief,” according to unnamed sources published in the Seattle Times.