Retired Seattle police Chief Carmen Best says she warned before the CHOP formed last summer that ceding the Capitol Hill protest zone would be a threat to public safety. And she says she has no idea how her texts from that crucial time period were lost.
In a new podcast episode released Monday and in a subsequent interview with The Seattle Times, Best publicly provided some of her most detailed recollections to date of the day last June when the Seattle Police Department abandoned the East Precinct after 10 days of street protests that erupted in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder by a Minneapolis police officer.
While Best still declined to say exactly who made the crucial calls on the ground, she reiterated it wasn’t her decision to abandon the precinct. Instead, she described what happened as an almost unintentional series of events: Facing threats and the removal of the barricades that had separated protesters from the precinct, officers left and took weapons and sensitive material with them — but when they tried to come back later, on the assumption the protesters would largely be gone, they were blocked from returning.
Best sat down with Jerry Ratcliffe, a former Metropolitan Police officer in London and a criminal justice professor at Temple University in Philadelphia, in early May
Their discussion, first reported Monday by Seattle’s KUOW, also detailed what led to the decision to take down police barricades at 11th Avenue and Pine Street, which had become a flashpoint when some protesters hurled rocks, bottles and fireworks at officers, who used tear gas and flash-bang devices against the crowd. The barricades’ removal came about after the FBI notified city officials, including Best, that the agency had received credible threats that the precinct was going to be burned down, Best said.
“And because the city had really decided, to be honest with you, that we were going to open up those streets. It wasn’t our first choice to do. It was a command … We did not want to open up the streets. But the mayor’s office and others were like, ‘Look, there’s a skirmish line there and that’s a point of contention if you leave people there,'” Best told Ratcliffe.
Lifting the police barricades was “against our better judgment,” and as a result, SPD decided to move weapons and sensitive materials out of the precinct, Best said during the podcast.
Preparations for vacating the precinct started June 8, 2020, hours after Best said she ordered SWAT officers to deploy tear gas to disperse demonstrators when officers spotted “a man with a gun in the crowd” and “felt like it was a life safety situation … and I concurred,” The Seattle Times previously reported.
Even then, Best told Ratcliffe, she told her commanders that they weren’t evacuating the precinct and would return the next day, which was June 9.
But when a police captain and an acting lieutenant tried to get into the precinct, they ran up against protesters’ barricades and were approached by armed protesters who told them, “Get off our sovereign property,” Best said.
“A couple hours later, it was like, they evacuated the precinct. I’m like, ‘What happened?'” Best told Ratcliffe. “So it just wasn’t clear exactly what transpired. But I think the idea was that the next day, the demonstration would happen. These things usually lasted till 2 or 3 or later in the morning. And then, once the crowd dissipated, we would start moving equipment and people back into the precinct. But it didn’t. That’s not what happened, right?”
In a Monday phone interview, Best said Assistant Chief Deanna Nollette, current interim Chief Adrian Diaz and a few others did in fact return to the East Precinct for a short stint.
“And then overnight one of the commanders had made the decision to you know, that, for whatever reason, to exit the precinct at that time, too, and did. And so, we were really back to how we were going to negotiate how we were going to go back into the precinct,” said Best, who is currently in Memphis, Tennessee, discussing police leadership with members of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office, on Monday.
That decision by one of her subordinates kicked off the 3-and-a-half-week occupation of a six-block protest zone known as CHAZ and later the CHOP.
Best told Ratcliffe the occupied zone was unlike anything any police agency in the country had seen before and catapulted Seattle into the national media spotlight. And there was no political will to do anything about it, she said, with Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan telling CNN the protests could turn into a “summer of love.”
“The whole time, the officers and the people who were responding to that area knew it was a problem,” Best told Ratcliffe. “And we had been saying, ‘Look, our response times are up. We’ve had rapes. We had robberies. We had assaults.’ And I remember giving a news conference at some time along the way and holding up the reports, because every time I said something, people would say we were just making it up.”
Best reiterated what she said in the podcast in a Monday phone interview, saying she tried to warn the city about what she saw as a clear threat to public safety: “If you look back, they were bringing out porta-potties, the Fire Department was handing out hand sanitizer and cookies, they tore up the park to build a vegetable garden and the parks department seemed to be OK with it,” Best said. “There was not a lot of will or support to do anything about it, and I think it wasn’t until it was clear — even though I was trying to sound the alarm, in my view, well before that, that this can be really problematic — but clearly the murder of two young African American men really brought that home.”
She was referring to the June 20, 2020, fatal shooting of 19-year-old Lorenzo Anderson, followed nine days later by the shooting death of 16-year-old Antonio Mays Jr. Seattle police cleared out the CHOP early on July 1, 2020, arresting 44 people in the process.
Best told Ratcliffe she was terrified clearing out CHOP could turn into “a mini Waco,” referring to the 1993 law enforcement siege on the Branch Davidian compound in Texas.
Asked to comment on Best’s interviews, Kamaria Hightower, a Durkan spokesperson, said in an emailed statement that the Office of Police Accountability has been conducting in-depth interviews and reviewing records with SPD and city officials about last summer’s events at the East Precinct.
“We will learn more from those as well as the discovery from the ongoing litigation on these matters,” Hightower wrote.
KUOW’s story notes that Best recorded her interview with Ratcliffe on May 3, four days before The Seattle Times first reported that text messages between Best, Durkan and Seattle fire Chief Harold Scoggins in June 2020 had not been retained and so were not available for public release.
Best, who retired in early September in protest over the Seattle City Council’s announcement it planned to cut SPD’s budget in half, said Monday that public-disclosure requests had been submitted for her text, phone and email messages throughout the CHOP period and as far as she knew, all of her devices had been backed up.
“No one has come to me, no one has said anything to me other than what I’ve read in the paper,” Best said of the now-lost city communications. “I retired eight months ago, walked away and I haven’t really looked back. I turned in all of my equipment when I left. I can’t begin to tell what happened, who had that information, where it went, all of that.”
Information from The Seattle Times archives is included in this story.