Facing public backlash over the exclusion of interim Police Chief Carmen Best as a finalist for the permanent job, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan devised a behind-the-scenes solution.
Interim Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best most likely will be named the department’s next permanent chief, a stunning reversal of fortune that grew out of what was viewed as an elegant solution to a thorny political problem, according to three sources familiar with the matter.
As late as this past week, the mayor’s office was proceeding with plans for the finalists — former Pittsburgh Police Chief Cameron McLay, Minneapolis police Inspector Eddie Frizell and Austin, Texas, Assistant Chief Ely Reyes — to meet with community groups this week and sit with Durkan for formal interviews before she made her selection.
By Friday, groundwork had been quietly laid that led to Saturday’s surprise announcement that McLay would withdraw as a candidate and that Best had been added to the list.
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McLay had emerged as the front-runner behind the scenes, in part because he was the only finalist to have served as a police chief and in consideration of a national reputation as a police reformer, according to the sources, all of whom spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to discuss internal discussions.
But as a white male, his selection risked setting off further community backlash over the absence of Best, an African-American woman who had won widespread support in the department and community for her skills and outreach during her 26 years in the department, two of the sources said.
Best, who was serving as deputy chief when Durkan appointed her interim chief on Jan. 1 following the departure of Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole, had been one of five semifinalists submitted by a 25-member search committee created by Durkan.
But a Durkan advisory group didn’t place her in the final three largely because of concerns among some involved in the search process that she was too tied to the history and culture of the department to carry out the final phase of court-ordered reforms sought by the U.S. Justice Department to address findings of routine use of excessive force and evidence of biased policing, the sources said.
There also were concerns that Best was too friendly with Seattle police Sgt. Rich O’Neill, the vice president of the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild, who has been at the center of contentious negotiations with the city over police-accountability reforms and a polarizing figure when he served as union president in the past, they said.
But Best helped put aside those issues with the professional way she responded when Durkan’s advisers didn’t submit her name as a finalist, two of the sources said.
“I wish the candidates the best — each of them should know how fortunate they will be to lead officers who have a commitment to public safety and reform,” she said in a statement she continued to rely on even as the chorus of angry reactions to her exclusion grew.
Durkan took a second look at her, leading to discussions with McLay this past week about him taking on a different role, the two sources said, one of whom described Durkan as having a “genuine affection” for Best.
In a news release Saturday, Durkan said “we agreed that assisting on reform efforts was the best way he could help Seattle.”
McLay, whose role has yet to be defined, said in a text message to The Seattle Times on Saturday that he wouldn’t speak about the development “until the dust settles.”
In an interview with The Times this past Monday he gave every indication that he wanted the job and would be the chief to lead the department into a new era of community-oriented policing.
But McLay privately relayed to Durkan that his family was reluctant for him to publicly clash with a police union again, like he did during his two-year tenure as a reform-minded police chief in Pittsburgh before he resigned in 2016, one of the sources said. The Pittsburgh Fraternal Order of Police presented McLay with a vote of no confidence after two years, leading to his resignation after handpicking his successor.
If named a mayoral adviser on police reform and public safety, McLay would fill a hole in Durkan’s administration, the source said.
Even as it appeared Best has won the job, subject to City Council confirmation, Durkan plans to go ahead with this week’s interviews, now with Best and Frizell, who is also African-American, and Reyes, who identifies as mixed-race Latino and white.
Sunday evening, a mayor’s spokeswoman refuted the idea that Best’s nomination for police chief is a done deal.
“Any speculation regarding the Mayor’s selection is just that: speculation. There has been no decision made about Chief of Police. All three are strong candidates,” the spokeswoman, Stephanie Formas, wrote in an email.
Frizell’s candidacy appeared to already be in trouble over questions about his leadership in Minneapolis, including a judge’s finding that Frizell, during a lawsuit against a prior police chief, had been dishonest when he told a reporter that he didn’t know why he had been demoted, the sources said.
Reyes, who has been with the Austin Police Department since 1996, remains highly regarded but has a résumé similar to Best’s, tipping the balance in her favor because of her hometown ties, the sources said.
Still, the interviews with Durkan leave open the possibility the landscape could shift again, two of the sources said.
In addition, city officials are to appear at a court hearing Monday afternoon before U.S. District Judge James Robart, who in January found the Police Department in compliance with a 2012 consent decree requiring the reforms regarding excessive force and biased policing.
His decision set in motion a two-year period in which the city must show the policies and procedures are locked in place.
Robart has asked the city and the court’s monitor, Merrick Bobb, for progress reports during the hearing, and the police-chief selection is almost certain to be discussed.
In his January ruling, Robart made clear the city still has significant and difficult work to do during the two years. He noted the city had yet to conclude key negotiations with the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild.
The union has been working without a contract since 2014, leaving some police-accountability measures in limbo.
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