Seattle’s first Black female police chief, in a stunning turn of events, announced her retirement Tuesday, hours after the City Council, which has no Black members, cut her budget and salary in the name of Black Lives Matter.
Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best, who had defended the department for months against calls by protesters and the City Council to defund the police, said she was unwilling to stand by as the council slashed paychecks and laid off officers, including young Black officers she had worked hard to recruit.
“I really don’t want the animus that has been directed toward me to affect the people who work for me,” Chief Best said Tuesday at a press conference. “Targeting my command staff and their pay, it just felt very vindictive and very punitive. I don’t want them to be affected by that type of animus. So I had to make some decisions.”
She announced her departure hours after the City Council voted 7-1 to carve $4 million from the $170 million budget remaining in the year, as well as eliminate 100 police positions through attrition and layoffs, including all school resource officers, the SWAT team and the navigation team charged with removing homeless encampments.
The reduction was significantly less than the 50% demanded by protesters who have roiled Seattle for months, culminating in the three-week takeover of a six-block area known as the Capitol Hill Occupied Zone, or CHOP.
Even so, Black Lives Matter Seattle-King County blamed the popular chief’s exit on racism from the ultraliberal council.
“It does nothing to further our fight for authentic police accountability and the safety of Black lives, that the first Black woman to hold the position of Chief of Police of the Seattle Police Department has been forced out of her job by the Seattle City Council,” the BLM group said in a statement.
The council initially proposed slashing Chief Best’s salary by 40% but ended up trimming it from $285,000 to $275,000. It also cut the salaries of her command staff. Chief Best’s salary was the only one cut of all city department directors, even though she was leading Seattle’s largest department.
Mayor Jenny Durkan, who backed the chief, pointed out that City Council members left their own salaries intact as well as those of their staffs and argued that “they targeted only Carmen Best.”
“Racism is racism,” the Black Lives Matter statement said. “We demand the Seattle City Council 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. And we demand a successor that serves Black Lives.”
The sudden retirement of Chief Best illustrates the political risks for city councils bowing to protest demands to defund the police while providing another example of how the price of Black Lives Matter unrest is often paid by Black Americans.
At a Tuesday press conference, Chief Best read aloud an email she received Monday night from a young Black officer who told her he was hired after applying for five years and was “ecstatic” to work under her command.
“A great young man — tall, stout, a wonderful African-American man — and he is one of the people that will probably not keep their job here,” said Chief Best. “And that, for me — I’m done. Can’t do it.”
Some council members sought to distance themselves from the much-admired chief’s abrupt resignation. Three members — Debora Juarez, Andrew Lewis and Alex Pedersen — voted against cutting her salary in the Aug. 5 vote, while six voted in favor.
“Cutting the salary of the first black woman to serve as chief to a level below her white predecessor does not sit well with me either,” Mr. Lewis said in a press release. “It is clear from the public statements of Chief Best that these pay cuts to her and her team weighed heavily in her decision to leave public service, and it is a significant and sad loss.”
Mr. Pedersen cited the chief’s retirement as one of the “unintended consequences” of that decision.
“I did not support suddenly cutting the salary of the first Black police chief in Seattle’s history and the diverse, experienced team that she picked,” Mr. Pedersen said. “While I believe we should take a hard look at reducing excessive city government pay during budget deficits, I believe our entire City Council should be more thoughtful and methodical so we avoid unintended consequences.”
Casting the only vote against the entire budget package was council member Kshama Sawant, a self-described socialist, who repeated her support for the 50% defunding proposal “as our Peoples Budget and Justice for George Floyd movement have demanded.”
“This budget fails to shift the misplaced priorities of the Democratic political establishment,” she said in a statement. “It continues to hand more money over to the bloated police department than to eldercare, homeless services, and other human services, affordable housing, neighborhoods, and arts and culture combined.”
Ms. Sawant said a “budget that does not meet basic social needs and that continues to throw money at a racist, violent institution is a failed budget.”
During the protests after the May 25 death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody, Chief Best tangled with the City Council, challenging their ban on crowd control methods such as tear gas, pepper spray and blast balls that she said placed officers and the community in danger.
She declared “enough is enough” on June 29 after two Black men were fatally shot in the police-free CHOP zone. The mayor ordered the zone dismantled and cleared in an order the next day.
“Two African American men are dead, at a place where they claim to be working for Black Lives Matter,” the chief told reporters. “But they’re gone, they’re dead now.”
Last week, she called on the City Council to “forcefully call for the end of these tactics” after protesters showed up at her home.
In Washington, Attorney General William Barr praised Chief Best on Tuesday. He said her ‘leadership and demonstrated commitment to her oath of office reflected all that is good about America’s law enforcement.”
Chief Best said she refused to turn the press conference into a “wake” and stressed that her 28-year career in Seattle was filled with “great relationships, wonderful community members, great organization, wonderful command staff,” but the mayor was less restrained.
Ms. Durkan accused City Council members of refusing to consult with Chief Best and ignoring her pleas for a long-term vision for the police department. She said their move was “infuriating and deeply disappointing.”
“But it’s not about the money. That was the final straw. It’s about respect,” the mayor said. “It’s about listening to someone who is there with some answers and with the lived experience to help Seattle move forward.”
The mayor said Deputy Chief Adrian Diaz would succeed Chief Best as interim chief of the 1,400-member department. Her last day is Sept. 2.
About 1,000 demonstrators turned out Saturday to support the Seattle Police Department before the budget cuts, and Chief Best assured officers that most of the city appreciates them.
“I am confident the department will make it through these difficult times,” Chief Best said in her farewell message. “You truly are the best police department in the country, and please trust me when I say the vast majority of people in Seattle support you and appreciate you.”
• Jeff Mordock contributed to this report.