Carnegie Mellon University

Carmen Best

February 19, 2021

Former Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best discusses the "something more" of diversity, equity, and inclusion

By Bill Brink

In retrospect, Carmen Best isn’t sure there really was a phone call.

That’s what her boss, Seattle Chief of Police Kathleen O’Toole, told Best, who at the time was O’Toole’s deputy. They were at a meeting of the Major Cities Chiefs Association, a collection of police chiefs from the seventy or so largest cities in the country. O’Toole told Best she had to run, asked Best to fill in, and suddenly Best found herself sitting next to Bill Bratton, a legend in the law enforcement community who served as chief of police in Boston, Los Angeles, and New York City. 

During Best’s remarks on diversity, equity, and inclusion last week as part of the Institute for Politics and Strategy’s Policy Forum, she used this experience as an example of the type of action required to truly make an impact in diversifying an organization. O’Toole didn’t just promote Best to deputy. She literally gave her a seat at the table. 

“My message is not to focus on these values,” Best said. “It’s to push us, all of us, to go beyond them and focus on belonging. That is the 'something more.' That’s really the answer.”

Best joined the Carnegie Mellon community via Zoom for a lecture co-sponsored by the IPS Policy Forum and the University Lecture Series. The event was an important component of IPS’ programming to celebrate Black History Month. On April 26, IPS will host Dr. Allison Clark for a discussion of the 2020 election, how voters of color can shift the electorate, and the inherent biases in election algorithms.

Best, a US Army veteran, spent twenty-eight years with the Seattle Police Department, including the final two as chief before retiring in 2020. After becoming the first Black female police Chief in Seattle in 2018, Best diversified the department: Forty percent of new hires in 2020 were women or people of color. Fostering diversity in an organization, she said, requires more than just that first step.

“Part of it is, we all celebrate the first. The first African American woman, the first police chief, the first doctor, whatever it is,” Best said. “But it’s not just celebrating people getting in the door. You have to support those people along the way, because the challenges are immense and they are intensified by the racial stereotypes and biases that many people hold.” 

Best used her experience at the police academy as an example. Older officers used to watch the women attempt their physical fitness tests, skeptical that they could pass. During her traffic stop test, the car she pulled over had a gun in it, the passenger jumped out and ran, and the car sped away, kicking dirt and rocks in her face. She was the only Black woman in the class.

“No one else had that scenario,” she said. “No one. Just me.”

Being invited, Best said, is not enough. Black officers in Seattle did not receive promotions to detective or sergeant until they sued the department. Best was initially passed over for chief of police, but her community sent letters and held meetings until the department considered her.

“People should be at the table because they’ve earned it, because they will help the organization,” she said. “I know we all wish that was enough, but unfortunately we have to confront reality and realize that to make major investments and to do the right thing, some people will say for themselves, what’s in it for me?” 

To ease the path for women and people of color, Best recommended changing policies and procedures to create a more diverse environment, training people on these new norms, and holding people accountable for violating them. 

“That is why we need to focus on diversity,” she said. “It lets people in the door who couldn’t get through it before. It exposes those already inside to new ideas, new people, new ways of doing things. And like anything, the more your organization does it, the better you get at it and the larger effect that you will have as you try to serve people.”

It is because Best rose through the police department and became chief, gaining firsthand knowledge of the challenges that minorities face and the assistance they need along the way, that she wonders whether O’Toole really had to take a call all those years ago. By letting Best represent the department in her stead, she did exactly what was required to enact real change.

“Once we have created an agency or an institution or culture that lets everyone in the door,” Best said, “don’t just leave them in the lobby.”