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Seattle Police Chief Best: ‘We can’t arrest our way out of a pandemic’

Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best. (Matt Pitman, KIRO Radio)

Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best was appointed chief in 2018. She’s the first African-American woman police chief in the city of Seattle, and is only the second person in the past 30 years to come up through the ranks to lead the department.

Chief Best joined KIRO Radio’s Gee and Ursula Show to answer a number of questions, including a question about Seattle’s crime levels during the COVID-19 pandemic, and why the Seattle Police Department feels like its ready to get out of the federal consent decree.

What impact has COVID-19 had on crime in Seattle and the downtown core?

“Well, the landscape has changed in the downtown core,” Best said. “… The number of people, obviously, that we’re seeing going to and fro has changed. There’s not as many people down there. A lot of the businesses are closed up now, so it’s just a different environment.”

The issues that the SPD is facing in the downtown core and surrounding areas have been more about burglary during the pandemic. Best referred to it as a shift in focus.

“And we’ve been doing that clearly beforehand, I mean, you know, all the issues you brought up about drug dealing and some issues with mental health and other things that were frequent down there that we were trying to work with our city partners and private sector partners to address in the area,” she said. “So clearly, that’s changed a little bit for now and we’re looking at other other issues.”

How have you redeployed SPD resources?

“Because of all of the universal protocols around social distancing and trying to limit exposure both to the officers who were in the front lines and to the people who we’re contacting in the field, we’ve had to change some of those measures,” Best said.

“The jail itself; I got a call from the jail director,” she said. “They were limiting some of the misdemeanor arrest people that they would take in.”

Best has been assured that jails are trying to protect the detainees under their care, to make sure they have separate cells and appropriate treatment.

“So we collaborated on that,” she said. “They showed us that there are people who are of particularly high risk. That means high likelihood of re-offending, long histories and records, that those folks they may keep, rather than have them just do a charge by officer or a police report.”

Best said officers are trying to limit the number of folks they’re putting in jail, especially in regards to minor offenses.

“We are still arresting people, and we’ve had, again, a little high uptick in the burglaries,” she said. “At least about a week or so ago, the last time I looked, we had arrested 103 different people for burglary because we really had to do an emphasis on the burglaries that were occurring in the area.”

This rise in burglaries is in commercial burglaries, not residential, Best clarified. Residential burglaries, she said, have gone down as more people are now at home during the day when burglaries often occur.

In terms following Gov. Inslee’s stay-at-home orders, what’s been the message to SPD?

“We’re going to respect, obviously, and follow the governor’s orders and the mayor’s orders,” Best said. “What we’ve been doing is we really are encouraging education and voluntary compliance.”

“We really want people to focus on social responsibility and making sure that we are protecting the health and safety of the community that we all live in,” she added. “… When we see people in clear violation, congregating, we’ll address them. We’ll try to make sure that they are doing what they need to do. But we also know that we can’t arrest our way out of a pandemic.”

Best mentioned that the media has been helpful in providing information, talking about how to flatten the curve, and sharing stories of those who have suffered with COVID-19.

“Obviously, people are frustrated. And when the parks are open on a sunny day in Seattle, that is the hardest day of all for us,” Best said. “But we will work with the parks department and others to help that education, to keep people moving, and to keep people from violating the governor’s order. But I’m certainly not going to ever be a proponent of violating what the governor has issued.”

How many officers have tested positive for COVID-19?

“We had seven employees total that were tested positive, five of those were sworn officers and two civilian personnel,” she said. “And we haven’t had a positive test in over a month now, so I’m grateful for that.”

Best said she thinks the low scale of positive cases is because the city and state jumped on board with the measures necessary to minimize risk. SPD has taken steps to protect its officers and employees.

“For us, that meant, for example, we closed down the lobbies of the precinct. You can get in, but we monitor who is coming in and you have to have a reason for being there. We minimize some of the contact that way,” she said.

If there’s a misdemeanor crime, SPD is trying to respond more over phone or online to avoid exposing officers and complainants.

“We set up the first in the nation test site with the Fire Department to test first responders to make sure that we’re testing them right away for anybody who had a potential exposure, and we worked with the University of Washington to make sure that any test that we did went to the front of the line to make sure that we could minimize the risk and exposure to employees,” she said.

“And then we set up a contract with some of our cleaning facilities to do sanitization of areas if there was a COVID-19 positive response,” she added.

How has the SPD changed during the course of the consent decree?

Since 2012, the SPD has been under federal scrutiny because of the consent decree, prompted by complaints of racial bias and excessive use of force. It has required officers to use de-escalation tactics and establish new use of force policies.

“I really feel like we’re a different agency than we were … almost 10 years ago, when we came under under the federal consent decree,” Best said. “We followed all the guidelines. We filed all the reports, we’ve met all the requirements that they asked under that contract. And use of force has gone down.”

“We’ve just turned it around through policies, procedures, through training, through intensive oversight from our OPA, from the office of the Inspector General, and from the Community Police Commission,” she added. “And I think it’s made us a better agency overall and we respond so much better to these incidents. We have so much more technology at our fingertips. We know where officers are, we know what they’re doing. We have intense reporting. We have a force review board that meets with both internal and external participants to review these issues of force and how they’re being handled, not just the force itself, but what led up to the force, do they properly deescalate?”

Best said all incidents receive an in-depth analysis so police can learn how to respond better.

“I know that we have really done a better job over the course of the last several years, and we’re continuing to look at better ways to make sure that we can use as little force as possible, make sure that we’re enhancing public safety, keeping officers and keeping the public safer,” Best said.

Some officers have complained that they are unable to do their jobs, whether it’s dealing with repeat offenders or drug addicted homeless people who commit crimes, and would often point to the consent decree as the reason.

“The consent decree was focused on assessing use of force by its own language,” she said. “And then there was a concern about biased policing, although that wasn’t one of the facts that was found to to be in the critical element. So we had to look at force and making sure that we’re focused on how using force and better training our officers in this area, using de-escalation, making sure we had appropriate accountability.”

Best believes the decree has made SPD a better organization, and a national leader.

“People come to us all from all over the country and ask us about our policies, our practices, our training and how they can utilize that in their own organizations,” she said. “I will say that the issue of repeat offenders, that is an issue. It’s separate. And aside from the consent decree, which does not address that specifically, … I understand that officers are frustrated sometimes and they feel like they’re contacting some of the same people repeatedly. But those are other elements of the criminal justice system that we’re gonna have to work with to find good solutions about how we respond and what the outcomes are.”

Chief Best has previously criticized the city’s political climate and lack of support from some of the city council members in staffing issues. How do you feel that support is now?

“I feel like the council, many of them have told us that they want to support us,” she said. “They’re trying to help us, and in many ways they have. I mean, they increased the amount of incentive pay for new recruits. They also, for lateral people coming in, to help us get the number of people that we need to in our ranks. They’ve also put together, the mayor’s office was the main initiator, but put together a group that was looking at how we can make things better and more enticing for officers to stay on and keep our retention, and also to bring people on the agency.”

There have also been areas where Best feels the SPD and officers were not as supported.

“Certainly, I feel like everyone has worked really hard to make sure that we met all of the requirements of the consent decree and to have anybody derogate that really continuous effort felt like an affront because we’ve been working really hard to meet all the metrics that we were supposed to meet,” she said.

“That said, we also have had some support there as well, and I’m looking forward to working with the council as we work through this pandemic and other issues to make sure that we have a police department that’s fair, ethical, and just, and is appropriately supported by our elected and our public officials,” she added.

Best also recognized that Mayor Jenny Durkan has been supportive, helping to make sure SPD is able to recruit, hire, train, and retain officers.

Listen to the Gee and Ursula Show weekday mornings from 9 a.m. – 12 p.m. on KIRO Radio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

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