Nearly one year ago, I announced that I would step down as chief of the Seattle Police Department after serving for 28 years. I resigned from a job that was the dream of my lifetime, in protest. The city council began considering steep cuts to the police department budget — all without consulting department leaders. A year later, city leaders have yet to establish a plan that keeps the city safe.
Last summer had been tumultuous throughout the country following the murder of George Floyd. But the nature of the Seattle protests and the resulting Capitol Hill Occupied Protest (CHOP) zone put us in the national spotlight.
Leading my department through protests over racism and policing was difficult, and it was personally so as the department’s first Black female police chief. But the hard work was not what led to my decision to resign. I loved my job, even in the toughest moments. Unfortunately, the city council’s disrespect for law enforcement and lack of any real plan for public safety while embracing ideas like defunding police by 50% made it impossible for me to stay on.
At the time, I knew that the council’s actions and rhetoric would lead to an exodus of good officers who could serve in another community with greater support for the risks they take and vital services they provide. Fast forward to today, and the current interim police chief, Adrian Diaz, estimates that more than 260 officers have left the department in what is now a “staffing crisis.” Seattle, along with cities across the country, is experiencing a dramatic spike in gun violence. Four people were killed in one weekend last month alone with more than 200 killed or wounded by gunfire so far this year. People have been throwing rocks and concrete at cars from overpasses. Yet, there is still no public-safety plan — a fact that is costing human lives and impacting families who will never see their loved ones again.
Many residents and business owners don’t think there are enough officers to prevent crime downtown or to respond to a call for help in neighborhoods throughout the city.
Despite these challenges, I still love Seattle and believe that change is possible. I believe that we can be a place where people living outside are served with the care they need. A city where business operators are confident that, if they ever feel their safety is threatened, the businesses that many have worked their whole lives to build, will be protected. A community where police and the people work together to prevent violence and where, if progress is not made, the people in power are held accountable for that.
To make progress on these issues, public safety must be a priority, which means it is past time for a real plan. For inspiration, Seattle’s leaders could look across the country to New York City’s democratic nominee for mayor, Eric Adams. He won the nomination competing in a crowded field of candidates with the promise that his top three issues would be “safety, safety, safety.”
Adams’s plan includes letting cops focus on police work, diversifying the force, targeting gun violence by working with community leaders like clergy and other organizations in gun-violence hot spots. It also addresses the trauma that occurs for people living in high-crime communities by engaging with mental-health professionals, social workers and other “violence interrupters” to stop the cycle that can only lead to more violence.
Seattle’s leaders could also look to places like Denver, a city ahead of us in overhauling the 911 system so that callers get the real help they need, which is sometimes not a police officer but a mental health professional or a paramedic. That city is trying new ideas that might seem small but can make a big difference for people, like giving out gift cards to auto stores instead of tickets when pulling someone over for a broken taillight.
Of course, Seattle’s challenges require solutions catered to our specific needs. Solutions that should be part of a much-needed public-safety plan. A plan the city should have but sadly has not yet created.
As we head into local elections this fall for mayor and city council, it is important that the candidates, especially the incumbents, articulate what they would do differently in their plan to address public safety.
The final plan from our leaders must be comprehensive, and it must abandon truly baffling ideas previously considered, like allowing theft without consequence. This sends the wrong message and dismisses the very real impacts to local businesses. This plan must also make clear that the police are part of the community. Police and community can work together to address these challenges, as we are all in this together.
If we prioritize public safety as a community and demand accountability from elected leaders and, yes, our police as well, we can enjoy safer neighborhoods, a vibrant downtown and at the same time protect the civil rights and safety of all our residents.
When I announced my resignation, I said that I believed everyone including residents, business owners and elected officials would find a way to work together, to put aside political grandstanding and power plays in order to overcome the challenges we face. I said that if we listen to each other, not just the people we agree with, we can find solutions that will carry Seattle into the future. It’s possible, but only if our leaders lead and do the work to find common-sense solutions. This work must start now. Lives and livelihoods depend on it.