Shortly after a plan emerged to cut police salaries, and nearly two weeks before she abruptly announced she would step down, Seattle police Chief Carmen Best asked for a formal accounting of how much her pension would pay her if she retired on Sept. 1.
Best asked for the estimate by phone on July 28, providing the proposed date of her retirement in September to be used to calculate her latest pension estimates, according to the Washington Department of Retirement Systems (DRS).
The next day, on July 29, DRS gave Best a written estimate that her retirement pay could range from an equivalent of $117,300 to $134,676 per year for the rest of her life, depending on which of four benefit options she chose under the state’s pension plan for police officers and firefighters, DRS records show.
The day before Best’s request, Councilmember Kshama Sawant announced a proposal to cap annual police salaries at $150,000, which, if enacted, would have slashed Best’s pay by more than $140,000 per year and likely throttled any further prospective increases to her monthly benefit upon retirement.
The newly released records, obtained by The Seattle Times in response to a Public Records Act request, provide the earliest time frame to date about when Best was contemplating her exit from the Police Department amid the ongoing rancor of police brutality protests and calls to defund the police.
When seeking her pension estimate, Best gave a proposed retirement date that fell one day before the City Council’s proposed cuts would have taken effect, on Sept. 2.
Best declined comment for this story, saying through a spokesperson that she “has repeatedly declined all interview requests — on all topics — because she feels as if she said everything she wants to say about her retirement at last week’s news conference with Mayor Durkan.”
News of Best’s surprise retirement didn’t surface until Monday evening, Aug. 10, a few hours after the City Council voted to reduce the police force and cut the top commanders’ pay, though by far less than initial proposals.
After anonymously sourced leaks to the media spread word of Best’s imminent resignation, Mayor Jenny Durkan issued a formal statement confirming the rumors.
The next day, during a news conference with Durkan, Best said she’d decided to retire over the previous weekend, calling it a “decision she wrestled with, but it was time.” Durkan said she learned of Best’s intent to step down over the weekend of Aug 8-9.
The chief, whose retirement officially takes effect Sept. 2, said her decision was based more on a principled stand for her officers than for personal reasons or due to the ongoing criticism against her department. She added she couldn’t bring herself to lay off any officers.
“This is not about the money and it certainly isn’t about the demonstrators,” Best said. “Be real. I have a thicker skin than that. It really is about the overarching lack of respect for the officers, the men and women who work so hard day in and day out.”
The retirement records show Best asked for her pension estimates several days before a crowd of protesters showed up near her home in rural Snohomish County to demonstrate.
During the press conference, Best blasted the council for excluding her from budget discussions and labeled cuts to the command staff’s pay as vindictive and punitive, pointing out the council hadn’t targeted executives in other city departments for pay cuts.
“But nobody joins the Police Department to get rich,” she said. “I would’ve chosen a different profession if money was the motivator.”
Best’s relationship with the council had soured since racial justice protests erupted in May. The council, under pressure from protesters and community coalitions to defund the Police Department and invest in alternative approaches to public safety, criticized officers’ heavy-handed use of tear gas and other crowd-control weapons during demonstrations, and passed legislation in June to ban them.
Best later publicly blamed the council’s “hasty legislation” for impeding officers’ ability to potentially save the life of a shooting victim inside the Capitol Hill Organized Protest (CHOP), an area surrounding the department’s abandoned East Precinct that demonstrators had taken over. But the council’s ban hadn’t yet taken effect.
On July 27 — the day before Best asked for her pension estimates — Sawant announced during a council briefing her intent to introduce “very specific amendments” that week to defund the Police Department’s budget by 50 percent, including one to “cap Seattle police salaries at $150,000.” Sawant later introduced the amendment during the council’s select budget committee hearing on July 31.
Another council proposal aimed to cut pay for the chief and other command staff positions to the “lowest hourly wage” among ranges for their job classifications, a move that would have slashed Best’s annual pay by about $108,000.
Such big pay cuts also likely would have thwarted Best’s ability to boost her optimal pension any further.
Under Washington’s pension plan for police, an officer’s monthly retirement benefit is based on a formula multiplying 2% by years of service by a final monthly average salary that’s derived from the highest amount of pay earned during 60 consecutive months over the officer’s career.
At age 55, with 28 years of service, Best’s highest earning 60-month stretch occurred during her last five years on the job, after she ascended to the top pay ranks as deputy chief and chief. The DRS records show her estimated final average monthly salary of $19,909 is based on salaries since late 2015 — ranging from $206,000 to $283,000 per year — each of which are higher than the pay she would have gotten under the City Council’s originally proposed pay cuts.
Ultimately, the council opted to trim Best’s salary for the rest of the year from about $293,000 annually to $275,000 per year — an amount that still could have helped Best slightly increase her ultimate monthly retirement pay. By the time the council voted on the issue, Best said she’d already decided to retire.
On Friday, Durkan vetoed the council’s revised 2020 budget that included the police cuts.
Both public employers and their employees contribute into Washington’s public employee retirement plans, with that money then invested to help pay pensions for all employees upon retirement. Since March 1992, Best’s retirement account has amassed about $480,000 in contributions and interest, the records show.
Upon retirement, Best stands to make a pension of $9,775 to $11,223 per month, although the actual amount she’ll make depends on whether she chooses to name a beneficiary to receive benefits upon her death, opts to buy additional credits and other factors.