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How Seattle's Police Chief Has Navigated The City's Protests For Racial Justice


Big city police chiefs need political survival skills now more than ever. At the height of the George Floyd protests in June, some high-profile chiefs were fired or forced out, even those with reputations for being reform minded. NPR's law enforcement correspondent Martin Kaste looks at how one chief has so far managed to survive.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: When people get mad at a police department, it's often the chief who takes the fall. But in Seattle, the chief has a little extra insurance.


UNIDENTIFIED REVEREND: We want to make sure our chief knows that we have her back.


KASTE: This was a rally in June held by a group of Black pastors. While chiefs in other cities were being shown the door, they came out to support Carmen Best. The chief sat there on the church dais ramrod straight in her uniform listening to the Reverend Dr. Harriet Walden.


HARRIET WALDEN: We stand with you. We fought the good fight to get you here. We know that Black women in leadership have a hard time. And sometimes people like to crush them.

KASTE: They have reason to worry about her. Even for America in the summer of 2020, Seattle is seeing some big tensions over policing. On one side, Chief Best is faced with intense, sometimes destructive demonstrations. For a few weeks, the protesters took over a whole neighborhood and named it the CHOP. On the other side, her boss, the mayor, is a former U.S. attorney who's caught between a hostile city council, which has embraced the protesters, and business owners who are tired of the chaos. What Best has going for her, though, is the fact that she is Seattle's first Black female police chief.

CARMEN BEST: I feel like I have a perspective from a lot of different areas, you know, as a mother, as an African American, as a woman.

KASTE: She's also an up-from-the-ranks Seattle cop, something she made sure to remind her officers of when she made a video for them lamenting the city's decision to withdraw police from that neighborhood in the face of intense protests.


BEST: The decision to board up the precinct - our precinct, our home, the first precinct I worked in - was something I had been holding off. You should know leaving the precinct was not my decision.

KASTE: And when the city later reversed course and took that neighborhood back, she was out in front.


BEST: What has happened here on these streets over the last two weeks - few weeks, that is - is lawless. And it's brutal. And bottom line, it is simply unacceptable.

KASTE: When talking about the protests, Best sometimes uses tougher rhetoric than Seattle's white mayor or the city's other left-leaning politicians. In a letter to the city council, she recently denounced protesters who target public officials' homes, including her own. And she warned against the threat of what she calls mob rule. She's also fought to keep the option of using crowd control tools such as pepper spray when protests turned disruptive. That's earned her the disdain of the younger Black activists who lead the new defund the police movement.

WYKING GARRETT: I would say that, ultimately, she's representative of an institution that is founded in racism, the, you know, slave catchers.

KASTE: Wyking Garrett runs Africatown Community Land Trust, one of the groups in the coalition that's pressuring city council to cut police spending 50%. He's not impressed by the fact that Chief Best calls police reform a righteous cause and that she's walked with peaceful protesters.

GARRETT: Superficial, symbolic gestures that don't change the status quo are really inconsequential. You know, we don't need good cops to take a knee. We need the good cops to shake the tree.

KASTE: Paradoxically, it may be the reformist police chiefs who are most politically vulnerable right now because they're usually the ones in liberal cities where activists have more influence. Robin Engel is a criminology professor and the former police chief at the University of Cincinnati. She says activists should recognize the political realities faced by chiefs such as Best.

ROBIN ENGEL: They have gone to the streets. And that's important. And, actually, it's powerful. It gives power to law enforcement executives that are reform minded. But the citizens also have to demonstrate a willingness to work with law enforcement executives that are making these changes.

KASTE: Engle points to the abrupt departure of another police chief known for being a reformer, Atlanta's Erika Shields, who stepped down in the face of angry protests over a police shooting in June.

ENGEL: That's concerning because we need to have strong police executives at the helm to help navigate us through these reform efforts if they are to be lasting reforms.

KASTE: In Seattle, Best is well aware of what happened to the chief in Atlanta, whom she knows, as well as some of the other chiefs ousted since the death of George Floyd. But she says she's not worried for her own position.

BEST: You know, if I stick to my principles, I think what should happen will happen.

KASTE: Still, she also adds, quote, "We're in a very volatile time. And jobs come and go."

Martin Kaste, NPR News, Seattle.

(SOUNDBITE OF THRUPENCE'S "FOREST ON THE SUN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.