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Opinion: Seattle’s Police Chief is failing at the truth

As many in Seattle have called for large scale changes to law enforcement, the police department has waged a battle over its public image, led by a carefully crafted, and often deceptive, narrative from Chief Carmen Best.

Opinion: Believe what you see — Seattle police are choosing violence

Let’s rewind to what feels like forever ago, when the Capitol Hill Occupied Protest (CHOP) was first forming. SPD sent out Assistant Chief Deanna Nollette to address the press in a brief seven-minute press conference, claiming that protesters inside the CHOP were extorting local businesses.

Best later repeated that claim herself, while right wing outlets exaggerated the supposed anarchy that was taking over a Seattle neighborhood. It wasn’t long before she admitted that in fact not a single official report of extortion had been filed with police. A later report found that the claim had actually originated from anonymous police officers cited by right wing commentator Ari Hoffman.

Essentially, Chief Best said police had “heard” about rumors of businesses being extorted by protesters from a rumor that originated from her own officers. It didn’t matter that the claim was made without a shred of credible evidence — the narrative had already taken hold.

And all that also only represents the tip of the iceberg.

In the days following the formation of the CHOP, questions began to surface over who had green-lit the decision to clear out the East Precinct. Best was quick to claim that it wasn’t her call. Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office released a statement of its own, claiming that she didn’t order the precinct closed either.

Meanwhile, the full explanation from Best on the circumstances surrounding the decision was a master class on how to use a lot of words to effectively say nothing.

To wit:

What happened was everybody was moving very quickly. We were asked to have a potential evacuation plan, which we created. And then as officers were taking out sensitive material, because we just didn’t know the outcome of what would happen, so we were taking out any weapons, you know, any forms that had people’s private information, or criminal history, all those things that we wanted to make sure if there were problems, that they weren’t compromised in any way.

And as they were doing that, we talked to the Fire Department. There were some real safety considerations for the building, particularly the fire risk that was noted to us and so the decision from the lower level command was to go ahead and remain outside of the precinct for that evening and then, with no intention of abandoning the precinct, but just that we were going to take them off site and have them respond back. But, you know, when we’re trying to respond back it was clear that we weren’t going to be able to safely move back into that facility at that point.

That’s a statement describing a precinct completely cleared of all personnel, equipment, and sensitive materials, yet also with “with no intention of abandoning” the building. Whatever her role was, it defies logic to imply that somehow the Seattle Chief of Police wouldn’t be involved in the decision to completely clear out a police precinct.

Days after that, Best went on CBS’s Face the Nation to say that she had reached “an epiphany” at a silent march organized by Black Lives Matter Seattle-King County.

“We are going to move in a different direction, and policing will never be the same as it was before,” she promised.

But when asked about whether she’d support an end to qualified immunity — a common demand of protesters across the U.S. in recent weeks — she vaguely hedged around anything that constitutes a real answer, saying that “the considerations of the public need to be infused in whatever that outcome is.”

On Tuesday, Best unveiled a reform proposal detailing new measures she would support, rife with words like “reconsider,” “assess,” and “identify.” The sum total is a list of high-minded aspirations with very little in the way of substantive changes.

Even so, other changes are already taking hold, with city council recently passing a ban on police owning, using, or storing crowd control weapons like tear gas, pepper spray, and more. Best has been vocal in her opposition to the ban, going so far as to claim that people who are tear gassed “don’t usually end up with any type of serious injury.”

A ProPublica investigation into tear gas, though, cited studies that show it “degrades … the layer of cells that help protect people from viruses and bacteria,” and can even put people at “higher risk for contracting influenza, pneumonia, bronchitis, and other respiratory illnesses.” A study done with civilians in Turkey also found that repeated exposure may be linked to miscarriages. Another concluded it has a “significant potential for misuse, leading to unnecessary morbidity and mortality.”

Keeping in mind that tear gas was being regularly unleashed in a densely populated residential neighborhood in the middle of a respiratory pandemic, it’s not hard to see why Seattle’s police force is no longer being trusted to exercise restraint.

No more reform — it’s time to rebuild Seattle policing

Best claimed in a Monday press conference that “a life might have been saved if not for the circumstances created by hasty legislation,” implying that without the council’s ban on crowd control weapons (which hasn’t actually taken effect yet), police would have been able to stop Saturday’s shooting in the CHOP.

The reality here is two-fold. One: At best, it’s extremely unlikely — if not completely untrue — that the ability to use tear gas and pepper spray would have prevented any of the shootings that have taken place in and around the CHOP, especially given that police arrived only after Saturday’s victim had already been transported to the hospital. And even if you allow that not having police staffing the East Precinct slowed the response time, which is certainly a valid concern, it’s difficult to see how tear gas would have done anything to save lives in that situation.

Second: These weapons are being taken away permanently only after Chief Best authorized the use of tear gas on protesters just days into what was supposed to be a 30-day moratorium in early June. If the police couldn’t be trusted to pause their use of tear gas even for 48 hours to come up with some sort of better solution, what choice did city lawmakers have but to take it away entirely?

During that moratorium, the hope was to reevaluate the department’s use of crowd control weapons. That obviously didn’t happen. Best even claimed on Monday that her department “spent years developing the gold standard” for how those weapons are used (decidedly not the language of someone willing to reevaluate anything). In the end it was a half-measure that was almost immediately disregarded.

All this constitutes a pattern of behavior where we’ve seen the head of the city’s police department either willfully misleading the public, or doing a monumentally poor job interpreting the facts. Call it gaslighting, call it lying, or call it incompetence — whatever it is that we’re seeing from Seattle’s Police Chief, it’s certainly not honesty.

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