Former Police Chief Carmen Best admits in her new book that she wrongly assumed Mayor Jenny Durkan “had gone behind my back” and ordered officers to abandon her department’s East Precinct amid the racial justice protests that rocked Seattle last year.
“The mayor must have given the order,” Best wrote in “Black in Blue: Lessons on Leadership, Breaking Barriers, and Racial Reconciliation,” released last week by HarperCollins Leadership. “ … I couldn’t think of another possible culprit.”
But Best’s mistaken assumption is among the few new insights offered into one of the most tumultuous periods in modern Seattle history: the weekslong protests, sparked by an officer’s murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, that also spawned civil unrest, tear-gas-tinged police clashes and long-term political and legal fallout here.
“It wasn’t meant to be a historical document,” Best said of her book during an interview Wednesday.
“I was reflecting and pulling out relevant pieces that I thought would provide good information about leadership challenges and lessons learned. I think there are some really key things that go far beyond a couple months.”
The account Best gives of Seattle’s unprecedented demonstrations in mid-2020 makes up the bulk of the book’s narrative about her 28-year police career, however. It also breaks from chronology, skipping back and forth in time and conflating some events that occurred several days apart, without signaling date changes to readers.
Her account downplays or omits some of the period’s most contentious moments and contradicts key details known about others, a Seattle Times review of the book, city records and news reports from the time show.
Best, 56, has appeared on national TV talk shows to promote the 175-page book, a mix of personal memoir and narrative opinion interrupted by episodic “tactical debriefs” that impart her advice and present workshop questions on leadership.
The book’s timing also keeps Best’s name in a national conversation on policing. This week, news reports named Seattle’s ex-chief among candidates for commissioner of the New York Police Department.
Best, who abruptly retired last year amid the fallout and budget cuts of Seattle’s demonstrations, declined to specifically address the latest reports. Speaking generally about her future, she said: “I haven’t ruled anything out.”
School, Army, police academy
In her book, Best conveys she’s both a supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement and a defender of the institution of policing. She castigates so-called “defund the police” efforts, but acknowledges the need for police reform and recommends more women and better background checks in hiring.
By and large, she concludes the “fight against police brutality” is an external one, writing “we must first and foremost erase racism and sexism within our own households.”
The book details Best’s upbringing as the daughter of a heavy-drinking soldier stationed at what was then Fort Lewis and her own experiences in the Army. It also describes how an unsuccessful bid for student body president at Tacoma’s Lincoln High School, and disparate treatment she dealt with as a “petite Black woman” in the police academy helped shape her.
Best credits “mentors, allies and sponsors,” including her predecessor, Chief Kathleen O’Toole, for her ascent to the top of Seattle’s department. In a prologue, she describes how Durkan informed her she’d initially been passed over for the chief’s job, before a community uproar led to her appointment.
In her interview, Best acknowledged she worked with a “collaborator” who helped write the book.
“In many ways it was cathartic,” she said, adding her aim was to share how she dealt with racism, microaggressions and other challenging situations throughout her life.
Best’s version of the events of 2020 unfolds across three of the book’s seven chapters, starting with details about a January mass shooting downtown, the emergence of the coronavirus pandemic and mostly, Seattle’s protests.
After Floyd’s May 25 death, Best wrote, she quickly released a statement to Seattle officers describing it as “murder.” She also noted that because of the department’s “high-level training and commitment to de-escalation,” she had “confidence that something like this would not occur in our city.”
Not mentioned are any of SPD’s own high-profile fatal encounters with people of color, including Charleena Lyles, a Black woman who was fatally shot by two officers, one of whom Best suspended for two days for failing to carry a Taser.
As Seattle’s protests emerged in late May, Best’s book says she confronted “the incident commander I left in charge” — then-Assistant Chief Steve Hirjak, whom she doesn’t name — for failing to prepare for weekend demonstrations downtown that drew thousands and were marred by rioting. When Hirjak allegedly couldn’t answer basic questions, Best wrote she and her then-deputy chief (Adrian Diaz) “eventually took over.”
The point of the scene wasn’t “to focus on the person, but the leadership lesson,” Best said this week. “Sometimes, you’re faced with situations unexpectedly. When you are, you have to figure out what to do with that moment.”
Hirjak has since claimed in a lawsuit he was demoted and scapegoated for the failures of Best and others.
From Best’s depiction of that May 30 encounter with Hirjak, the book proceeds to blend events that occurred over more than a week into seemingly one day. One part describes an incident that occurred eight days later, on June 7, providing Best’s only direct reference to authorizing the use of tear gas in response to a man who “drove through the crowd near the precinct, jumped out with a gun and fired a shot.”
“At that point, I had no choice but to approve the use of tear gas,” Best wrote. “While I dreaded the decision … I knew this was the only way to avoid tragedy.”
But by then, Seattle police had deployed tear gas several times, with Best authorizing its use as early as May 31. Prior deployments had prompted police accountability officials to ask the department to stop using tear gas, with Best agreeing June 5 to a 30-day ban.
“The City didn’t use tear gas once — they used it several times,” David Perez, a lawyer who represents BLM activists who sued and won a judge’s order barring SPD’s use of crowd-control weapons, wrote in an email after reading excerpts from the book. “The City’s gratuitous and, frankly, unconstitutional use of tear gas against its own people is one of the major reasons why we felt compelled to sue the City in the first place.”
From the reference to the June 7 tear gas incident, Best’s narrative then jumps back in time to a decision to call in the National Guard and issue a public statement about ongoing assaults on officers and looting downtown. Both events occurred on May 31.
East precinct, revisited
In a chapter about the emergence of the Capitol Hill Organized Protest zone, or CHOP, Best writes of wrongly assuming Durkan ordered the East Precinct’s evacuation. Best later apologized to Durkan, she wrote, but not before posting a video on SPD’s website to declare “leaving the precinct was not my decision.”
“My main concern … was not to find out who had done it, but to reassure my officers and community that the order to give up the precinct had not come from me,” she wrote.
Missing from the account was that the chief’s videotaped statement, and lack of a full explanation from city officials afterward, sparked months of speculation about who ordered the evacuation and an Office of Police Accountability investigation into whether the precinct’s abandonment violated policies and fueled the creation of the CHOP.
The OPA probe ultimately concluded it did neither, despite conflicting details in statements from Best and Assistant Chief Thomas Mahaffey, who actually gave the order to leave the precinct.
Asked this week why she didn’t publicly identify Mahaffey last year, after realizing he gave the order, Best said: “What difference does it make? Ultimately, when a person in command makes a decision [and] you’re the chief, the buck stops with you.”
Best’s book goes on to describe how Seattle officers ultimately removed CHOP, but doesn’t mention either of the two deadly shootings that preceded its removal.
The book rehashes in full eight statements that Best publicly posted as chief, filling 27 pages. But it offers few details about her behind-the-scenes discussions with Durkan and other officials, whose text messages, along with Best’s, later disappeared.
“The book was not meant to be some tell-all,” Best said.
Best’s account of 2020 culminates by slamming the City Council for proposing a 50% budget cut for the Police Department in response to the protests, contending councilmembers repeatedly ignored her input and at times were demeaning and “vehemently rude” to her. After protesters demonstrated outside of her Snohomish home, Best recounted how she publicly posted an Aug. 2 letter requesting the council to “forcefully call for the end of these tactics.”
“Result? Nothing,” Best wrote of the council’s response. “And that was when I reached the point of no return.”
Rather than letting councilmembers make her “the scapegoat for mass layoffs,” Best announced Aug. 11 she would retire. “I was not going to let them dictate my legacy,” she wrote.
Protests and defunding
Lisa Herbold, the council’s Public Safety Committee chair, disputed statements made by Best during a recent TV appearance and in book excerpts provided by The Times.
Among other things, Herbold turned over a lengthy email showing she did respond to Best’s letter about protests at her home, and noted that, before Best announced her retirement, the council had rejected the proposed 50% budget cut and instead passed a roughly 18% reduction by mostly moving parking enforcement and 911 functions out of SPD.
“It seems to me that she left, not because of a feared 50% cut, which the council had rejected, but in opposition to any cut at all … that would have put her in the undesirable position of opposing [the police guild] to implement the Council’s budget,” Herbold said.
Best said this week she doesn’t recollect receiving Herbold’s email, adding her book “isn’t meant to be a fight with the council.”
“The council is entitled to their own opinion,” she said. “They’re certainly welcome to write their own book. This is my book from my perspective.”