Cameron McLay, a former Pittsburgh police chief, withdrew as a finalist and is in discussions to work with the city on police reform. Mayor Jenny Durkan reopened the competitive process and added Carmen Best, whose absence as a finalist had drawn community criticism.
Carmen Best, interim chief of the Seattle Police Department, is back in the running to be permanent chief, after one of three finalists for the job withdrew from consideration, Mayor Jenny Durkan announced Saturday.
Cameron McLay, a former chief of the Pittsburgh Police Department who had previously been named a finalist, withdrew “following conversations on police reform” with the mayor, Durkan’s office said.
McLay instead is in discussions to work with the city on police reform, the mayor said.
Seattle has been without a permanent police chief since Kathleen O’Toole stepped down in late 2017.
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The sudden turn of events unfolded after Durkan and McLay talked about a different role, better suited to his “passion” in promoting police reform, Durkan spokeswoman Stephanie Formas said Saturday.
The mayor’s office then reopened the competitive process and added Best, 53, who was among five semifinalists. McLay had been chosen as a finalist from that group along with Ely Reyes, an assistant chief in Austin, Texas; and Eddie Frizell, a police inspector in Minneapolis.
In a prepared statement, McLay said he withdrew because he “can most effectively support Seattle’s continued reform efforts outside the role of chief of police.”
But last week, in an interview at his rural cabin near Merrimac, Wisconsin, McLay 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 in Seattle.
He mentioned nothing about withdrawing his name from consideration, even saying that he and his wife had found life “downright boring” without a new challenge.
In a two-hour interview, McLay was sure of his abilities as a leader and his version of community policing. He wanted to do in Seattle what he never got a chance to do during his tumultuous two years in Pittsburgh — lead the department and its officers to a place where social and racial justice intersect with problem-solving oriented, community-based law enforcement.
Best’s exclusion from the group of finalists had drawn intense criticism from community groups who said she was treated unfairly after playing a key role as a deputy chief in navigating the department through federally mandated reforms.
Durkan will now face tremendous pressure to choose Best as chief, possibly tapping her for her community-relations skills while bringing in McLay to assure the reforms are carried out under a 2012 consent decree requiring the department to address excessive force and biased policing.
U.S. District Judge James Robart this year found the city had met the terms of the consent decree, triggering a two-year period in which the department must show the reforms are locked in place. Robart has set a court hearing for Monday to discuss progress on the reform effort, and the shake-up in the police-chief search is almost certain to be a topic.
On Saturday evening, reached on her way to a Kenny Chesney concert at CenturyLink Field, Best said she was “absolutely thrilled” to be back in the running.
Deep community ties
Best — who is African American and has spent her entire 26-year policing career in Seattle — has deep community ties and was the only woman and only internal candidate among the five semifinalists. She has served as interim chief since Jan. 1.
Her prior exclusion triggered outrage from community groups who advocate for police reform and also the Seattle police union.
The Seattle Police Officers’ Guild had blasted the decision as “biased and discriminatory.” Guild President Kevin Stuckey, who served on the search committee, said the process left a “sour taste in my mouth.”
The city’s Community Police Commission had asked the City Council last month to postpone a confirmation hearing for Durkan’s yet-to-be-named nominee until members were given a clearer explanation as to why Best was not chosen as a finalist.
The Rev. Harriett Walden, a founder of Mothers for Police Accountability, had been sharply critical of the decision to exclude Best as a finalist, saying that Durkan’s honeymoon “is absolutely over.”
Walden said Saturday the selection process had been flawed and Best’s name should have been on the list all along.
“We in the African-American community, and not only the African-American community but other people around Seattle, believe Chief Best is the best candidate,” Walden said.
Lisa Daugaard, the director of the Public Defender Association, said she was delighted that Best was back in the running and she credited Durkan.
“I assume that city leaders are continuously assessing and making sure that they’re putting the city in the best position to succeed,” Daugaard said. “What’s going on in Seattle with respect to policing and new approaches to policing is something that Chief Best is heavily identified with.”
McLay last week acknowledged there was apparent unrest in communities of color and in the Police Department rank and file over the failure of Best to make the short list. He said that if he were named chief he would try to persuade her to stay on.
“I like Carmen, I respect her and I look forward to developing a strong working relationship if she were to choose to stay and I was chosen,” McLay said Monday.
His withdrawal has now cleared the way for Best to re-emerge as a candidate.
It was not clear from the mayor’s statement Saturday whether McLay would relocate to Seattle or what the title, position or exact role of his job assisting with police reforms would be. McLay said in a text message Saturday he wouldn’t speak about the development “until the dust settles.”
McLay, the former Pittsburgh police chief, was the only one of the three original finalists to have served as chief of a large Police Department.
A reformer who clashed with Pittsburgh’s police union, McLay served for two years in that city’s department before resigning in November 2016, saying he had accomplished everything he believed he could, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported at the time.
Pittsburgh’s mayor credited McLay with changing the department and said, when McLay stepped down, that complaints against Pittsburgh police dropped 42 percent during his tenure.
But the Pittsburgh police union voted that it had “no confidence” in McLay two months before he stepped down.