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caption: Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best attends a vigil to recognize the senseless killing of African American men and women outside of the First African Methodist Episcopal Church on Monday, June 1, 2020, in Seattle.
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Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best attends a vigil to recognize the senseless killing of African American men and women outside of the First African Methodist Episcopal Church on Monday, June 1, 2020, in Seattle.
Credit: KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

Seattle Police Chief Best says policing must change but defends tear gas use

Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best said Tuesday that she's open to more community involvement in reform efforts after weeks of protests over police use of deadly force.

In an interview with KUOW, Best said some duties that now fall to her officers would be better handled by social services, such as mental health calls.

But Best defended the use of tear gas for crowd control in some instances, despite heavy criticism of how it was deployed against crowds compose mostly of people who were protesting peacefully.

On Monday night, the City Council banned the use of tear gas by Seattle police, along with use of pepper spray and stun grenades. The council also banned the use of chokeholds.

Hear Best's conversation with KUOW's Angela King by pressing the listen button above.

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Angela King: You said on national television over the weekend that you had an epiphany following weeks of protests. And you also said policing would need to move in a different direction. So exactly what changes are you talking about or foreseeing?

Carmen Best: By way of background, I was at the Black Lives Matter march [Friday], and I was watching the various protesters walk. And it just was very clear to me that there's still a lot of hurt, and a lot of anger. And even though we've been in a [federal] consent decree, for almost a decade now, you know, we haven't pushed the needle as far as we had liked, to make sure that we had community trust, and that we were building the relationship that we needed to build. And so as I was watching, I just realized we need to change, we need to do something different. And the policing will never be the same after this national, and I would say even international, movement after the death of George Floyd.

So what kind of changes do you see happening?

Yeah, well, some of the things that we've talked about, I sat down with my command staff, and we talked about radical change to make a difference, and I felt fortunate that everybody was on board with it. One of the things that we want to make sure that we're doing broadly is really joining with community leadership, and re-imagining and re-envisioning how policing will be done in the future. We've got to bring community inside the tent, so to speak, and working together very closely with them and not just a listening session, but a session where we're getting input and feedback. It's real time about things that are happening currently. You know, being locked to a consent decree that was created 10 years ago isn't going to help us move forward. So we need to be doing something that is real time moving us forward, and then actively participating in ways that the SPD can find ways to assist and ... actually work more with human services and those types of issues. We certainly are on board with that. And then we want to make sure that the East Precinct that we're not able to occupy right now is a place of unity and reconciliation and community, and that officers are able to be occupy the building.

How do you plan on seeing that happening? Because protesters say they want to see major changes before they're ready to relinquish this area they've occupied now called the CHOP. How do you plan on getting back in the building?

Well, you know, Angela, there's a lot of discussions that are occurring with many protesters with many divergent views that are there. And we're looking forward to coming to some sort of common path where we can move forward, both with assuaging some of their concerns, but also making sure that we're able to respond to calls for service. As you know, the response times have increased three and a half times. And so we just want to make sure that we're able to respond to calls for service, able to do our job, while still respecting the views of the protesters.

But no plans at this point in terms of how and when you plan to get into the building.

Yeah, it's that it's a evolving process as we talk to the protesters and try to figure it out. You know, these negotiations could take some time. But we feel like time is more important to be, you know, to be taken on this issue rather than just moving charging ahead and getting people hurt.

Protesters wanting to see that building turned into some kind of community center. Your response?

I think the officers need to be in the precinct responding to calls for service from the precinct. I do think that if there's a building for protesters that's available, then certainly I'm not opposed to that. But the East Precinct was made for responding to the community a long time ago. And we have it set up and ready to respond to 911 calls for service. And I don't think it helps public safety to take the police officers out of the precinct, particularly when there's no alternative site for them.

So let's get back to the ban voted on by the Seattle City Council in terms of crowd control devices, tear gas, stun grenades, things like that. Why has the SPD held on to such weapons?

There's a lot of research that has shown time, distance and shielding is one of the best ways to effectively disperse groups without having to use a riot baton. So we wanted to get away from those ancient archaic ways and use, sometimes chemical irritants. While it is irritating, people don't usually end up with any type of serious injury, and we really wanted to avoid that. That said, it's very clear to me that people have a concern about the proportional deployment of these things. And I myself have talked to family members who've been at protests, and of course, they're there peacefully, but there are people embedded in the group, who are not there peacefully, who are actually throwing rocks and bottles, and other objective objects and projectiles at the officers. So our response is typically to disperse the crowd. But the effect of that is that many people who are there are not doing anything suffer the results of that, and so it's definitely something that needs to be looked at more. I've contacted the International Association of Police Chiefs, who's looking for a number of experts across the across the world as well as some local experts to talk about how we might deploy better if we're allowed to do so. And how we might be more effective, because clearly, the people who are attending these protests want to see a different reaction.

But you still support the use of those things?

I do in certain cases. But obviously, if the City Council takes it away, we're back to batons and devices like that.

Do you really think those are going to be better methods to use on crowds?

I absolutely do not, which is why I support having some sort of modulated response. It can't be all or nothing here, we need to figure out a way that we can both respond, take care of public safety and not, not overuse it, but still have the ability to have it on our tool belt.

Talking about changes, we've heard about the calls for cutting the police budget. What do you think of those calls?

Yeah, well, as I was mentioning earlier, I think that the concern is can we provide better services, human services to people. And I think there's a way to do that without cutting, fully, the budget. But we're certainly open to how we might divest some of the responsibility of the police department to other agencies. For example, we responded to 16,995 crisis calls over an 18 month period. If some social service agency wants to take on those crisis calls for people in Seattle and I have a police response. We think there's a discussion around that, and maybe some other functions that can be outside of the police department, and we could focus and hone in on 911 specific calls.

Now, last week, a police official said there had been reports of lawlessness even attempts at extortion in the Capitol Hill area. You seem to walk that back a couple of days later, but some of the media ran with the story. And of course, now we've got the president threatening to send in the National Guard to restore order, doubling down on that. How do you respond to this?

You know, Angela, I really don't get involved in the public politics of the day. I think what we were saying was that we were hearing anecdotally that there were issues about it. We didn't have any formal reports. And we said, Hey, if you have experiences, please report it, because we're hearing about it, actually, from some of our media sources that were saying people were reporting it to them, but they hadn't reported it to us.

You are a black woman. You're the first black woman to lead the SPD, at a time when race and policing both are at the forefront of the public discussion. What do you say to complaints that systemic racism exists within the SPD?

Well, my answer to that is systemic racism exists in every aspect of this country, I think you know that we are all struggling with ways to move through and eliminate racism, anti-blackism, and all the issues that we've been struggling with for the last 400 years in our country. And so clearly there going to be some bad apples in every profession that we deal with. I want to be held accountable to make sure that when issues come up, that we are dealing with the people involved, that we are making sure people are accountable to being fair and ethical, and just that we're working with the community to create systems that make us much more accountable to the community members, and listening to them in real time, about things that are occurring. You know, there's no way that we can affect everything. But when it comes to the department, we're going to make sure that we're looking at antiracist policies, and making sure that officers treat everybody equitably.

Have you seen systemic racism within the department, or have you experienced it yourself?

I think the profession as a whole, is easy to say, has had some one of the systems that has had issues with racism. You know, we all know that. In the past, at least, when people have cried out for freedom and justice and fairness, whether they're black, or Latino or Asian or LGBTQ, often the police were used to maintain the status quo. We have to acknowledge that, and we have to find ways to move forward with that. So that question has been answered throughout history, throughout agencies across, you know, really across the country. So I'm really looking forward to moving forward and to getting reconciliation and fairness and equity in all aspects.

Let me ask you, maybe what many would say is a personal question. In recent weeks, a lot of people have heard about how black families have the "talk" with their children when it comes to the police. You're a parent yourself. What do you say to parents who express this concern to you and do you think parents, particularly black parents, still need to have this talk with their children?

Well, I certainly understand it from a black family. My parents had those thoughts with us. And I think people are still fearful. And while I working hard every day to make sure our department is safe, I think we are seeing cases and instances across the country that are highly concerning. So any parent who's cautious and loves their children are going to want to make sure that they're using the caution that just goes, you know, that just goes with the issue that we're dealing with. That said, we're trying to make it better so that we don't have to have those talks with our children.

And I understand your children have been involved in the recent protests.

My daughter and my son in law and my nephew have attended. Not all of them, but several of the protests, of course, because they are concerned about issues that surround policing issues that surround institutional racism, in policing and healthcare and education and all other aspects. So I'm very proud of them for making their voices heard and known. And I'm loving working hard on the policing side in a way to make sure that we're listening.