Three finalists for Seattle Police chief responded to questions from the public and a panel of African American community leaders and activists concerned about officer accountability on Wednesday, July 11.
Not This Time advocates for increased police accountability and de-escalation training, and is led by Andre Taylor, whose brother, Che, was killed by Seattle Police in February 2016.
The organization led the De-Escalate Washington coalition in gathering enough signatures last year for Initiative 940, which would remove malice as a burden of proof when prosecuting an officer for unnecessary use of deadly force, as well as increase mental health, de-escalation and first aid training requirements for Washington law enforcement officers.
The Legislature worked with De-Escalate Washington to pass I-940 and a modifying bill last session. Tim Eyman challenged I-940’s passage, arguing the voters should have had the opportunity to decide. The initiative is now receiving a legal litmus test by the state Supreme Court.
Questions fielded by Seattle Police chief finalists on July 11 were focused on concerns about racial biases from local law enforcement, how the next department leader would address officer misconduct and excessive force, and the work ahead to make the city’s African American community feel safe — and not scared — when they see police.
Each candidate had 45 minutes to make their case to a packed room at the Seattle Vocational Institute that included an energetic audience, Not This Time panel and local clergy.
Interim Police Chief Carmen Best has been leading the department since the beginning of the year, following the exit of Kathleen O’Toole after three years in the position.
Best did not make the finalists list the first go-around, but then Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan tempted former Pittsburgh chief Cameron McLay to pull his name from consideration in exchange for a position focused on police reform. Best, who has been with SPD for 26 years, was reported back in the running through a July 7 news release.
Before assuming command, Best was deputy chief in charge of patrol, investigations, special operations and community outreach.
“Regardless of what happens, I’ve had a really good career,” Best said during her opening remarks.
Charleena Lyles was shot to death in June 2017 after Seattle officers responded to her apartment for a burglary report. The officers claimed Lyles tried to stab them with kitchen knives. Her family is still waiting for an inquest, which is on hold while the inquest process is revised.
Lyles’ first-cousin Katrina Johnson said Best told her family she would get back to them with more information following the pregnant mother of three’s death.
“That never happened,” Johnson said, “and it’s been a year now. We’re still waiting for those answers.”
Best said she provided the information she could at the time, but the pending inquest prevented her from telling the family more.
“I can assure you, I think about this all the time,” she said. “I think about what happened in our systems that led to the very tragic moment that officers had taken the life of a young woman and her unborn child, and it hurts my heart, and I will give your family every answer I can give when I can give it.”
The controversial, $219 million King County Children and Family Justice Center — more commonly referred to by opponents as the new youth jail — was brought up. An audience question was what Best thought needed to be done to divert youth away from criminal incarceration.
Best said she understands youth sometimes make bad decisions because they’ve not fully matured. She said she supports current diversion programs, such as the county’s peacekeeping circles, and increased police training.
Nikkita Oliver — former mayoral candidate, attorney and activist — has long been a vocal opponent of the youth jail, and has called out County Executive Dow Constantine for not engaging in a public debate with her about the facility, now under construction just north of the current facility.
Oliver said the city argues there isn’t enough funding to effectively invest in public health strategies without raising property taxes.
“It’s my perspective that young people are not broken; it’s the system around them that is,” she said, calling for a change in the way resources are spent in order to examine the root causes of behavior that ends with people being labeled as criminals, such as poverty.
Oliver asked if Best would divest from the “militarized police force.”
“Actually, that’s a really easy answer, and that’s yes,” Best said.
Forty-two people were fatally shot in Washington state in 2017, and the panel asked each candidate how they would hold officers accountable when these incidents occur.
“Officers are not paid to kill people,” Best said. “They’re supposed to be saving people.”
The interim chief highlighted improvements made within the department under a 2012 consent decree with the Department of Justice, entered into after a pattern of excessive force was found, including a force review board, as well as the Office of Police Accountability and an incoming inspector general — the city’s first.
Best said she favors data-driven responses and policies, and allocating resources where they can do the most good. The Seattle Police Department has a $350 million budget.
She said Seattle’s Community Police Commission will have a say in SPD policies before they’re rolled out if she gets the job.
“It doesn’t mean it’s necessarily going to change, but everybody gets to see, Here’s what we’re proposing, here’s a change we’re proposing, here’s the open comment period,’ so we can look at it,” Best said, “so people actually know what the policies are, and can have a say in what we’re doing and what we’re implementing at the police department.”
Mt. Baker Baptist Church senior pastor Kenneth Ransfer asked Best what she would do about the issue of people calling the police on black people they consider suspicious, but actually did nothing wrong.
While there appears to be a spike in these false reports, as captured on social media and covered by the press, Best said it’s nothing new. She recounted a call she heard come into the East Precinct 25 years ago — a person reporting little black children playing in their yard.
She said she would have to work with the city attorney’s office, because there is a law regarding false reporting, but some calls don’t cross that threshold.
As for racist officers, Best said she will fire anyone determined to be such, citing the termination of SPD Officer Cynthia Whitlatch in 2015 for the wrongful arrest of William Wingate — a black man walking with a golf club in Capitol Hill— back in July 2014.
The city eventually settled with the disgraced officer, changing her termination to retirement, granting her $105,000 in back pay, and allowing her to collect her pension. She is not allowed to work in law enforcement again.
“We’d rather pay her back than put her out in a uniform,” Best said in defense of the settlement.
Minneapolis Police Inspector Eddie Frizell had already been to Seattle before as part of his bid for police chief.
“This is the first time that I’ve been able to sit in front of individuals that I consider my own,” he said during opening remarks on July 11.
Frizell said he has 55 years of experience as a black man, and has seen his share of racism, going as far back as his childhood in Iowa.
Taylor wasted no time with pleasantries.
“We are a city that is full of activists,” the Not This Time leader said, “and we don’t know you.”
Taylor asked Frizell what he would do if another police shooting occurred in Seattle if he were in charge, and amid a culture of officers defending their own.
Not being a police chief before, Frizell said he lacked “the juice” to make those changes, but has witnessed the escalation of force during his 25 years in law enforcement.
“Not everybody out here is trying to kill me, and if the mentality is that’s where it is, that’s where the change starts,” Frizell said, “and it starts with having a police department which reflects the community it serves.”
He said he would focus on replacing an aging police force with people that understand the desires of the community they serve and improving the training provided.
The Minneapolis inspector compared the lack of training he sees to “pre-Rodney King,” adding SPD has had training in rifle deployment but there is no policy for it.
Taylor asked Frizell to give a figure on how many good officers there are, to which he replied with 80 percent. Frizell clarified that’s his national perspective, adding two out of every 10 officers he investigated while with internal affairs ended up being fired.
Austin Police Assistant Chief Ely Reyes spent six years in the Army before applying with the department to become a law enforcement officer, he said. Reyes gave credit to former Austin chief Art Acevedo for shaping his positions regarding accountability and community policing. Acevedo left the Austin PD to take the top job in Houston, and was replaced this June by interim chief Brian Manley.
“Community policing is not something we do to the community,” he said. “It’s something we do with the community.”
Reyes said “time and distance” can be effective factors in better handling police responses, getting as much information as needed to address a situation.
Just like the SPD, the Austin Police Department had to comply with 135 recommendations from the Department of Justice after it determined the department had a problem with excessive force and biased policing. It never entered a consent decree like Seattle, however.
Austin is also a tech sector with an affordability problem, Reyes said, and he has worked with health and human services there to try to avoid criminalizing homelessness.
Reyes said he would make sure officers spent time interacting with people on their beat and building relationships, so community members are familiar with them when they do have to respond to an incident. He said he has met with the Seattle Police Officers Guild, and he found that the hours officers work and their patrol areas are inconsistent.
“I don’t think that it’s good for building relationship in the community because of the hours they’re working, and their days off are not consistent,” Reyes said.
Austin officers have to meet with business and community leaders on their beat and create a “Neighborhood Portfolio Report,” he said, which assesses the different policing needs and expectations of that area.
The Austin assistant chief mentioned earlier how his officers were all required to have a taser before heading out on patrol, and are also equipped with other nonlethal tools.
One officer that responded to Charleena Lyles’ apartment did not bring his taser, because the batteries had died; he was later suspended for two days without pay. Johnson brought up that fact with Reyes.
“What engagement have you had with communities of color that makes you qualified to address communities of color?” Johnson asked.
Reyes said he was involved in the work conducted with the Austin Justice Coalition and local NAACP to craft policy for body-worn cameras a year before they were implemented.
Reyes took a question about how he would handle the need to discipline officers when those matters are often complicated by SPOG.
A chief has to have a working relationship with the police union, he said, but “policies are policies.”
“I’m not really concerned about the union weighing in on decision-making that I’m going to make, because I’m going to do what’s right,” Reyes said. “And if they violated policy or they violated the law, then they need to be held accountable — and in Texas it’s much easier in a right-to-work state, but that’s a standard that I think should be everywhere.”