Seattle City Council homes in on Police Department cuts as defunding proponents and skeptics mobilize

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Seattle police cruiser

This story was originally published by the Seattle Times on July 18, 2020

Seattle City Council members are starting to home in on specific cuts to the Police Department as groups advocating for a new approach to public safety continue to apply pressure, and as defunding skeptics start to speak out.

In a remote budget committee meeting Wednesday, multiple council members voiced interest in executing police officer layoffs this year, targeted at units such as the Navigation Team that removes homeless encampments.

Mayor Jenny Durkan is cautioning those council members to slow down for more careful analysis, describing a push to reduce the department’s remaining 2020 budget by 50% as impractical. Yet Durkan is grappling with a recall petition over her response to Black Lives Matter protests and a drive among Democratic Party groups for her to step down, possibly reducing her clout.

“I really don’t know where we’re headed,” said Victoria Beach, who chairs the Police Department’s African American Community Advisory Council, expressing frustration with the mayor and council alike. “I think it’s going to get ugly.”

The protests against police killings and institutional racism have brought intense scrutiny to the Police Department, which began this year with a budget of more than $400 million. Defunding advocates have seized the moment, noting the department mostly responds to noncriminal calls and winning widespread political support for the concept.

Last week, seven of nine council members said they would support a high-level proposal — laid out by the coalitions Decriminalize Seattle and King County Equity Now — to cut police spending by 50% and redirect the money to alternative 911 responders, community services and affordable housing.

The protests have caused many council members to move in a new direction: Lisa Herbold, M. Lorena González and Teresa Mosqueda voted last year for police officer hiring bonuses. Andrew Lewis and Dan Strauss told The Seattle Times as candidates last year the city needed a larger force.

With the council members not initially saying how they would shrink the department, police Chief Carmen Best warned about “catastrophic” consequences, including mass layoffs and closure of the Southwest Precinct.

Durkan sought to take the reins Monday, objecting to defunding in 2020 while announcing plans to scale down the department in 2021 by moving 911 dispatchers, parking cops and some other units outside its control.

The mayor’s 2020 budget rebalancing package, which is meant to close a hole opened by the COVID-19 crisis and which the council is currently deliberating, already includes $20 million in Police Department savings.

The debate inched ahead Wednesday, as some council members shared initial thoughts about how they may want to cut the Police Department this year.

Herbold and Councilmember Tammy Morales are interested in eliminating particular units, such as the Collaborative Policing Bureau, which includes officers assigned to the Navigation Team and to public schools, and the Public Affairs unit. Herbold said such cuts could be conducted in monthly phases from September to December.

The council members are still working on their ideas and won’t be advancing concrete budget amendments until next week, they acknowledged.

Only Councilmember Kshama Sawant released itemized cuts Wednesday, proposing that 2020’s patrol budget be slashed by more than $30 million and that annual employee pay be capped at $150,000, among other changes.

But representatives from Decriminalize Seattle and King County Equity Now urged on the council members Wednesday, presenting an expanded defunding blueprint at City Hall. “Seattle doesn’t face a crisis of rising crime rates. Seattle is facing a housing crisis,” King County Equity Now’s Isaac Joy said.

The reps stressed the importance of diverting dollars right away; organizations need to build capacity this year to “hit the ground running” in 2021 and assure residents their safety issues will be addressed, said advocate Nikkita Oliver, who helped lead a remote “teach-in” for community members.

“People who are trusted … are better equipped to respond,” but need resources, Sherae Lascelles, whose Green Light Project provides outreach to sex workers, said in the teach-in, citing the U.S. Census Bureau’s “trusted messengers” model.

The nationally acclaimed Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program, which started in Seattle, could play a significant role. Its dozens of case managers respond — at all hours — to help people who otherwise would end up in jail for low-level street crimes and problematic behavior.

LEAD already is hiring more case managers this year, and some council members think it no longer makes sense to require that LEAD referrals be approved by law enforcement, said Lisa Daugaard, an architect of the program. Best agrees.

“What was once necessary and logical is neither necessary nor logical now,” Daugaard said about the potential change first reported by Crosscut.

Scores of organizations and institutions have endorsed the high-level defunding proposal, ranging from Columbia Legal Services to El Centro de la Raza to the Chief Seattle Club and the American Civil Liberties Union, according to the Decriminalize Seattle website. Most people who spoke during a public comment session Wednesday voiced support.

“I’ve lived in the Central District my whole life. I work with young people, and police don’t keep them safe or me safe,” commenter Nyasha Sarju said.

The council is aiming for Aug. 3 to pass a 2020 budget rebalancing package.

“There’s been a lot of criticism about how the City Council is being cavalier,” Council President González said. “We’re not … We’re truly responding to the calls of community.”

ifferent perspectives

Durkan and Best have said they also support moving certain police duties to community-based models. But Durkan spokesperson Kelsey Nyland said many ideas identified by council members to date would save little or no money in 2020, while others would require bargaining with unions. Midyear cuts would require more layoffs per dollar than cuts in 2021, she said.

Eliminating the Collaborative Policing Bureau in 2020 would save $5.5 million and likely require bargaining, Nyland said. The bureau also includes a mounted unit, crisis intervention team and mental health workers, she said.

Sawant’s proposed cuts could require massive layoffs, including almost 700 in patrol operations alone, according to the Durkan administration.

“The mayor has repeatedly made clear that she believes a discussion of transforming SPD is a worthy one, but it should take place regarding the 2021 budget,” Nyland said, because shifting dollars and responsibilities away from the cops will be “incredibly complex” and require more time.

Meanwhile, some anxious about the situation are starting to mobilize. More than a dozen business and neighborhood groups, including the Downtown Seattle Association, Ballard Alliance and Friends of Little Saigon, sent a letter to the City Council this week raising concerns “over the haste” with which the council is moving.

“The calls to reduce the Seattle police budget by 50% are powerful political
statements,” the groups wrote Tuesday. “But we expect our local leaders … to enter into any planning for the elimination or reduction of public safety programs with deliberation and inclusion.”

In a Converge Media interview Wednesday, Seattle Police Officers Guild President Mike Solan accused the council of ignoring his members.

“Our voices aren’t heard,” said Solan, whose union was expelled last month from MLK Labor, an umbrella group for local unions.

A demonstration against defunding, organized outside City Hall by police spouses and partners Wednesday, drew about 100 people, the organizers told KING 5. They waved signs that read, “DEFEND SPD” and “BACK THE BLUE.”

Some counterprotesters showed up; both groups were small compared to the throngs of Black Lives Matter protesters that marched to City Hall last month to support defunding.

Though she opposes rapid defunding of the Police Department because “I don’t want to have to call 911 and have the officers not show up,” Beach said she thought Wednesday’s rally sent the wrong message. “It looked like they were against Black Lives Matter,” she said.

Beach organized her own event Thursday night, a socially distanced conversation in a park between officers and residents. The meetup was sparsely attended, though people said they gained new insights.

“I just thought this would be healing,” Beach said. “We need to take a deep breath and come to the table calmly so we can work it out.”

Also in an interview with Converge Media, Seattle Officer Monique Avery said she and most officers would welcome more social workers as partners but also believe social workers responding to crises need cops to keep them safe.

Best has said officers of color would be disproportionately hit by layoffs because newer hires would be let go first. Herbold and Morales have suggested officers instead be laid off based on how many misconduct complaints have been brought against them.

The Seattle Public Safety Civil Service Commission rule that says police employees must be laid off by seniority could be changed by the commission. But the City Attorney’s Office has said changing the rule would necessitate union bargaining, Nyland said.

An exception to the rule allows for layoffs out of order when such layoffs are deemed necessary for “efficient operation,” Herbold has noted. “There is no definition of what the ‘efficient’ operation … looks like,” Nyland said.

Beach agrees with Durkan that the council should slow down on Police Department cuts, she said. But the mayor also “has got to go,” she said, blaming Durkan for allowing deadly violence to occur at the Capitol Hill Organized Protest last month and for allowing Best at times to take heat.

Democratic Party groups for Washington state’s 36th, 37th and 43rd legislative districts now have passed resolutions calling for Durkan to resign.

A King County judge has ruled that a recall petition, accusing Durkan of allowing tear gas to repeatedly be used on protesters, could proceed to signature collecting. The mayor this week asked the judge to reconsider, arguing the decisions to use tear gas were made by Best and were reasonable.