The retirement of Carmen Best, Seattle’s beleaguered police chief, is the most recent upending of the careers of women leading major city police departments. Best, who retired on August 11 after the city council shrunk her department and cut her salary by more than $100,000, is only the latest female chief to have fallen.
Protests that began in Minneapolis with the May 25 death of George Floyd, an African-American man, after officer Derek Chauvin pressed a knee to his neck, have triggered a broad anti-racist movement that has resulted in, among other things, toppling statues of white male historical figures.
Less visible has been the toppling of women chiefs of police.
Women chiefs were once seen as harbingers of systemic changes in urban police departments. But in Atlanta, Erika Shields and, in Portland, Ore., Jami Resch, each resigned within days of protests by Black Lives Matter (BLM) and allied groups. In both cities, their mayors quickly accepted their resignations and appointed African-American men of much lower rank to replace them.
The similarity of events is striking.
Shields, a 25-year veteran of the almost 2,000-member Atlanta Police Department (APD), resigned on June 13, within 24 hours of a white police officer shooting and killing Rayshard Brooks.
Shields was appointed in December 2019 by Mayor Kasim Reed and retained by Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms.
Brooks died after he was questioned by officers responding to a complaint that he was parked and asleep in the drive-through lane of a Wendy’s restaurant. After what appeared to be a benign encounter, Brooks failed a sobriety test.
A scuffle ensued; during the arrest Brooks grabbed an officer’s Taser. Video shows Brooks running as he appears to point the Taser toward Officer Garrett Rolfe, who shot him twice in the back.
Reaction by Bottoms was immediate; she criticized the department’s use of deadly force. A 50-year-old African-American lawyer and former City Council member, Bottoms was elected mayor in 2017 by fewer than 1,000 votes. She had drawn national attention when she told protesters: “When I saw the murder of George Floyd, I hurt like a mother would hurt.”
Chief Shields made no formal statement when she resigned. She said only that she hoped by stepping aside and recommending a black man to replace her, the city could “build trust between law enforcement and the communities they serve.”
Shields’ replacement, Lieutenant Rodney Bryant, had recently taken over managing the city’s jails.
Shields served in all ranks before becoming Atlanta’s second woman and first openly gay chief. With bachelor’s and master’s degrees, her earlier assignments included patrol, internal affairs, and accreditation. She seemed to epitomize the modern police chief, but the National Association of Colored People (NAACP) had criticized her after she fired two officers who had tased two college students during the Floyd protests.
Their criticism, apparently, arose from her comments that the District Attorney’s decision to charge six officers was part of a “tsunami of political jockeying” because he was in a runoff election against his former deputy chief D.A.
Across the country, in Portland, Ore., Jami Resch also resigned after barely six months as chief and, like Shields, recommended a black male lieutenant to replace her. Resch had been selected by incumbent mayor Ted Wheeler to replace an African-American female, Danielle Outlaw, who left to become Philadelphia’s police commissioner.
A 21-year veteran of the Portland Police Bureau (the police department), Resch, like Shields, pledged to work with the community. At her swearing in she promised to be a “collaborative chief.”
But also like Shields, there were calls for Resch’s resignation from within the black community.
In what Portland’s daily newspaper, The Oregonian called a “caustic letter,” Resch was criticized for her “all-white leadership team” and for having replaced a departing Asian-American assistant chief with a white male without community input.
The assistant chief’s departure for a chief’s position elsewhere resulted in Portland, with a population more than 80 percent white or mixed race, having all white men in the four highest positions below the chief.
Under Portland’s governing structure, Mayor Wheeler, 58, who took office on Jan. 1, 2017, is also the city’s police commissioner. When Resch resigned from the $215,000-a-year position, she did not mention the caustic letter. She attributed her decision to having watched Lieutenant. Chuck Lovell, who she recommended replace her, interact with the community.
Lovell, 46, an 18-year bureau veteran, is the fourth African-American chief of the approximately 950-member agency. An Air Force veteran, with a bachelor’s degree, and near completing a master’s degree, he was promoted to sergeant in 2011 and to lieutenant in 2017.
Like Atlanta’s new chief, he was promoted from at least three ranks below the chief’s position.
Writing in The New York Times earlier this month, Lovell, who described himself as a black man and a public servant, decried Portland’s continuing violence, describing it as “drowning out the voices that need to be heard to make positive change” and “doing nothing to further the BLM movement.”
Yet Portland continues to face nightly violence.
Violence also continues nightly in Seattle since Chief Best was ordered by Mayor Jenny Durkan on June 8 to abandon the East Precinct police station when BLM protestors and various hangers-on moved into a six-block area they called the Capital Hill Occupation Protest (CHOP).
Best warned then that police were unable to respond to calls about “rapes, robberies and all sorts of violent act that have been occurring in the area.” But Durkan, elected in 2017, likened the area to San Francisco’s “summer of love” in 1967, when about 100,000 people turned Haight-Asbury into a park fueled largely by sex, drugs, and rock and roll.
Despite her initial support for CHOP, protesters occupied City Hall to demand her resignation.
After armed gangs took over the area and two African-American male teenagers were shot dead, Durkan advised protesters that: “It’s time for people to go home.”
But her message was mixed. She told them that Seattle could “still accommodate people who want to protest peacefully…. But the impacts on the businesses and residents and community are now too much.”
Chief Best and her officers cleared CHOP in about 30 minutes. Despite vast media coverage, Durkan had little to say and she rarely spoke about the chief. Best, on the other hand, was often the city’s spokesperson, presenting an upbeat message despite the nightly violence. She generally demurred when asked about her plans to remain as chief.
More recently, protests and vandalism have occurred in front of both Durkan’s and Best’s homes.
Finally, in the face of the city council’s votes to shrink the department and to reduce her salary, Best announced her retirement after 28 years with the department. In a news conference, Durkan said she accepted Best’s decision with “a heavy heart.”
Other reactions were mixed; BLM Seattle-King County called her retirement “a loss to the movement” and former King County Executive Ron Sims, who is black, said he found the council’s treatment of the chief “incredibly offensive” and “humiliating” to city’s first African-American woman chief. Others stressed their opposition to the police department regardless of who was in charge.
James Murphy, an international gambling expert, in June touted odds of 5 to 4 against Best being Seattle’s police chief at the end of 2020.
Right now, the odds don’t look favorable for women chiefs anywhere.
Ironically, not so long ago, reformers and feminists advocated for more women in law enforcement, particularly at the senior ranks. The goal was to move policing from a warrior culture to a community-based model and in the process heal troubled departments.
But these kinds of women leaders are now being felled by weak mayoral support and protester vitriol towards the police.
Women law enforcement leaders—particularly chiefs—rather than sitting at the head of the table, are being pushed out of the discussion. Whether they will regain momentum or lose ground to male minority candidates remains to be seen.
Silencing their voices does not bode well for bringing about systemic change.
Dorothy Moses Schulz (PhD), is a professor emerita at John Jay College of Criminal Justice (CUNY). A retired MTA-Metro North Railroad Police captain, she is the author of From Social Worker to Crimefighter: Women in United States Municipal Policing (Praeger, 1995), and Breaking the Brass Ceiling: Women Police Chiefs and Their Paths to the Top (Praeger, 2004), and a co-editor of Women and Policing in America: Classic and Contemporary Readings (Wolters Kluwer, 2011).