Danny Westneat: Police chief's decision to quit may have saved Seattle from itself

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Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best holds a news conference in front of the East Precinct on Monday, June 29, 2020. - Mike Siegel/Seattle Times/TNS

Police Chief Carmen Best, by resigning last week, did Seattle two huge favors.

Having the city’s first Black police chief get driven out, supposedly in the name of furthering Black equality, was an embarrassment for the city. But that’s what city leaders needed at this moment — they needed to get embarrassed, to be chastened or humbled a bit by their own slipshod performances. Thanks to Best, it appears that at least some of them were.

The other favor Best did us is that her departure spotlighted the real ideological split at City Hall on this issue, which is: Are we trying to fix the police, or tear them down?

I’ll get back to that second one in a minute, but first, the embarrassment. It’s important to retrace a bit where the provision to slash Best’s salary by 40% came from — as that was the moment, Best says, when “the animus felt personal.”

Because it came from Kshama Sawant.

This is crucial, as Sawant’s goals are unique, and aren’t always aligned with the Black Lives Matter movement or others at City Hall.

Several council members had been understandably looking at ways to cut back salaries at the city, to deal with huge revenue drops due to COVID-19. For technical and labor-bargaining reasons, though, these broader plans to reduce the pay of employees across the board weren’t doable in a midyear budget update.

But on the morning of the budget committee vote on Aug. 5, Sawant put in an amendment to cut the salaries of Best and her command staff. It was so new it wasn’t listed on the agenda, and it hadn’t yet been vetted much by council staff (the amount of money to be saved was at the time listed as “$XX” because staff hadn’t even had time to calculate it).

After only a few minutes of questions about whether it was legal to modify employment contracts midstream (council staff wasn’t sure of that either, while Sawant insisted it was), the council backed the pay cuts with a 6 to 3 vote.

This was extremely haphazard policymaking. It was also setting a political bomb, which, predictably, soon went off. You cut someone’s pay 40%, you’re not just disrespecting them, you’re seeking to break the relationship. As I wrote recently: “Is the council trying to get rid of the city’s Black police chief?”

The only ones who couldn’t see it were the council members themselves, who, from their Zoom bubble, soon took to apologizing, rationalizing and ultimately backtracking on most of Best’s pay cut.

But the one person you didn’t hear expressing any regret was Sawant. That’s because she wants political bombs like this to go off.

To her credit, she is transparent about this. At rallies this summer, she has expressed support for completely abolishing police (to which she adds that the police’s paymaster, the capitalist system, must be taken down, too).

“And that will only happen when we fight a revolution!” she urged at the Capitol Hill Organized Protest in June.

In addition to defunding Chief Best, it was Sawant who offered a plan of police cuts so deep that staff wrote “SPD may not be able to make this reduction without eliminating all or nearly all staff.” Even knowing this — that her plan could lay off the entire department — she pushed it to a vote anyway (it didn’t pass).

So the resignation of one chief? That’s just the appetizer.

It sure seemed from their statements, though, that at least five council members realize this was a huge political blunder. One, Lisa Herbold, apologized, while another, Debora Juarez, termed it a “wake-up call” to work more collaboratively. Black Lives Matter Seattle-King County blasted the council, saying it “does nothing” for their cause that the city’s first Black police chief had been “forced out of her job.”

No, but it does give the council a powerful reason to step back and reflect, to pause and vet their plans more carefully in the future. It’s a dose of reality to go along with the idealism. It doesn’t derail the overall police project, but maybe some will at least second-guess the wisdom of rushing into the breach behind Sawant.

Best’s quitting also refocused the core debate. What is the city trying to do here: reform the police, or tear it down? Change it or cripple it? Having a Black woman leading the recruiting of a more diverse force is a major asset if your goal is reform. But she’s just another obstacle if you view the police as broken beyond repair.

“Best’s actions … were guided at all times by loyalty to the status quo and willingness to do the role of police under capitalism: defend deep inequality through ongoing repression of poor, marginalized, communities of color,” Sawant said, after the dust cloud she caused had cleared. “The fact that Best is herself Black didn’t change that underlying reality.”

“Defund the police” has been gauzy as to what it really means, to how far it would go. Now, thanks to Best, we’re all getting a little clearer picture.

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ABOUT THE WRITER

Danny Westneat is a columnist for the Seattle Times.

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©2020 The Seattle Times