Chief Carmen Best: A new year offers Seattle’s elected officials an opportunity to solve the city’s greatest challenges
December 7, 2021
2021 tested Seattle in a way that likely leaves many residents and business owners more than ready for a new year. There’s the ongoing pandemic creating uncertainty and anxiety. Increasing homelessness is dividing communities who want to see people get the help they need and also want to enjoy beloved neighborhood parks. One of the grimmest statistics? Shootings spiked from 370 in 2020 to 509 this year. That’s an eye-popping increase of 38% at a time when the city can‘t retain police officers or recruit them quickly enough to backfill for the hundreds who’ve left the force.
It’s no wonder that voters in November’s election sent a clear signal that it’s time for a big change in Seattle. Now, the incoming elected public servants and those who currently serve must deliver real results.
To start, our leaders must turn around the toxic relationship between elected officials and police. That starts by budgeting for the police department Seattle wants and needs. Seattle doesn’t have to look far to find other progressive cities that are taking action to address public safety and crime prevention by restoring police funds cut in recent years.
Most urgently, if Seattle is going to attract and retain the best and the brightest police officers, they must commit to funding those efforts. We’ve lost hundreds of police officers over the last two years and know from police exit interviews that lack of support from city council is one reason why. As the former chief of police here in Seattle, I know how important it is to serve with the best and the brightest. I also know that doing so takes a real investment.
Yet, the current city council is allowing funding for hiring bonuses to expire at the end of this year which sends the message that they don’t see the police staffing crisis as crisis at all. Those funds should be restored.
Our leaders must also invest in public safety programs that work and show real commitment to seeing them succeed. The council’s consideration of cutting funds to expand the Community Service Officer (CSO) program was baffling. The unarmed civilian officers in the CSO interpret for domestic violence victims, they engage with communities and neighborhoods, and they support diversion and education programming for at-risk youth. The council was right to reverse course after criticism from many that the cut was “tone deaf” to the violence communities experience. As the city faces budget challenges in the coming years, incoming elected leaders must fight to keep the CSO program funded and growing.
City leaders must also finally take the crimes of repeat offenders seriously. People who target businesses and commit crimes multiple times in a year strain already stretched police resources, impact businesses that are already struggling to survive this pandemic and pose a safety hazard to themselves and others.
On homelessness, Marc Dones, CEO of the King County Regional Homelessness Authority (KCRHA) told Crosscut recently that “people are really tired of living in a community that requires them to potentially deescalate someone who is having a psychotic episode while they are trying to buy milk.” People like Dones and myself have been trained to help people in crisis, but, understandably, not everyone has those skills.
Of Seattle-area residents, Dones said “the message is really clear that people want something different and they want something that works and they want accountability and transparency in whatever that is.”
Elected officials need to show real, measurable progress on homelessness by 2023, or members of the city council up for election that year will likely need to freshen up their resumes. As the Regional Homelessness Authority’s work really gets underway, Seattle must set an example for cities throughout King County by partnering with the KCRHA on solutions and committing to the accountability and transparency.
Finally, it’s time our city leaders to get to work. Past efforts related to public safety including defunding police and abolishing law and order failed. We now have more crime and violence to show for it. Ideological positions and piecemeal thinking have served as a barrier to solving homelessness.
I am encouraged that the conversation is moving in the right direction. Now, let’s begin a new year and new era in Seattle where we prove that we can solve our city’s greatest challenges. Let’s embrace the change that voters demand.
Carmen Best is the former Seattle police chief and an adviser to ChangeWA, a nonpartisan organization focused on advancing common-sense governance built around smart growth, public safety, government accountability and good governance. Best is also the author of Black in Blue: Lessons on Leadership, Breaking Barriers, and Racial Reconciliation.