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Editorial: Seattle chief's departure highlights council failure

The Seattle Times Editorial Board, The Seattle Times on

Published in Op Eds

Behold the destruction of Seattle's fine reputation for civic progress and national leadership on police reform.

Police Chief Carmen Best, the city's first Black chief, resigned Tuesday because of mistreatment by the City Council. That highlights how far the council has fallen and how poorly it's responding to the call for bold progress against racism and police brutality.

The council appropriated the momentum of recent protests for ideological ends. On Monday, it mindlessly began slashing the police department budget -- all, astonishingly, without meaningful consultation with the chief.

Under the guidance of council President M. Lorena Gonzalez and budget chair Teresa Mosqueda, it simultaneously shifted dollars to activist organizations, building council members' political capital.

The council charged ahead, despite warnings that its actions would force the layoff of the most diverse group of police recruits in Seattle's history and may increase disparities in policing. Then members gave speeches congratulating themselves for doing so much for "the community."

The prospect of laying off officers the city worked so hard to attract, combined with spiteful council attacks on Best and her leadership team, was too much. Best abruptly announced her resignation to the public Tuesday.

"After we worked so incredibly hard to make sure our department was diverse ... to hack it off without having a plan in place to move forward is highly distressing for me," Best said in a news conference, adding that, "I just couldn't do it."

The council budget moves could force the layoffs of up to 100 officers. Under police contracts, recent hires are generally let go first, but council members are encouraging the department to seek workarounds even if that results in long and costly disputes.

Reducing the number of officers on patrol could increase the use of force, particularly as more officers end up operating alone rather than in pairs, according to policing experts. Any such changes should have been presented first to the federal judge overseeing Seattle's police reforms to ensure they don't reverse progress.

This all comes as the city has yet to fully address substantial increases in crime in parts of the city in recent years, or ongoing problems with assaults and threatening behavior downtown.

With no coherent plan for public safety and flip-flopping on members' election promises to increase policing, the council also threatens job recovery in Seattle, the economic engine of Washington state.

Council members should shift course now and work with Mayor Jenny Durkan to engage the broader community, and not just activists, in a deliberate, careful effort to re-imagine policing.

 

Durkan is right to wait until there's progress on that front before starting a national search for Best's replacement. Uncertainty the council is creating around policing will make it hard for the city and other organizations to attract top candidates.

Best declined to use the word "racist," when pressed by a reporter to characterize the council's actions.

Others may not be so kind. They will see that politicians in power caved to a vociferous mob, and advanced their positions, by bullying and forcing out a Black woman in a position of authority who has been a role model to many others.

"I call it anti-Blackness," said Rev. Harriett Walden, a longtime advocate for police reform and co-chair of the city's Community Police Commission.

The council last week moved to slash Best's salary, right after she and Durkan pleaded with the council to collaborate on ways to reinvent the police department and reallocate funding.

No other department heads had their salaries punitively cut by the council, Durkan noted.

Pay close attention, Seattle voters. The council's actions speak louder than all of its platitudes and self praise.

(c)2020 The Seattle Times

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