Murray pushes changes with police budget proposal

The mayor also said that a long-delayed police officer body-worn camera pilot should be up and running soon.
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Mayor Ed Murray

The mayor also said that a long-delayed police officer body-worn camera pilot should be up and running soon.

Emphasizing transparency, innovation and organizational performance, Mayor Ed Murray on Friday outlined his budget plans for the Seattle Police Department.

Speaking at a City Hall press conference, Murray and Police Chief Kathleen O'Toole also provided further explanations for ongoing delays with the police department's business intelligence system, and officer-worn body camera program. Both technologies are geared toward achieving the broader goals the mayor identified for the department.

The mayor also identified a number of initiatives to combat homelessness that will be included in his 2015-2016 budget proposal, which will be presented to the City Council in the coming weeks. While Murray said that the city's finances have improved compared to prior years, he also acknowledged that Seattle still faces fiscal hurdles. This was highlighted in August, when the mayor asked city departments to leave 1 percent of their 2014 budgets unspent as part of an effort to make up for projected $25 million general fund shortfalls in each of the next two years.

"The city, like other parts of the government, is not yet in a perfect place as far as the budget goes," Murray said. The mayor pointed to an uptick in the economy and savings in "existing resources" as the reasons that he was able to squeeze new programs into the city budget. But he added: "There are still long-term budget challenges."

The mayor's budget proposal would increase yearly investments in homelessness services by $1.5 million. Among these expenditures is $200,000 for a downtown hygiene center with free restrooms, showers and laundry facilities. Also included is $600,000 for a program targeting veterans. That money would provide 150 homeless single adults with help finding housing and jobs. Another $410,000 would be allocated annually for moving 25 of the longest-term stayers in city homeless shelters into permanent housing.

Going forward, Murray noted that the city's ability to meet the demand for human services would be somewhat based on available funding from governments at the county, state and federal level. "While we are doing good, as far as revenue forecasts, those branches of government are not yet there," he said. "It's impossible for the city alone to meet the human services demands that we have."

Casting a shadow over the police department and its budget is the ongoing effort to comply with reforms required under a settlement agreement between the city and the U.S. Justice Department. Murray said that $5 million had been allocated for the reforms next year. According to a monthly cost report the City Budget Office sent to the mayor and the City Council at the end of May, Seattle had spent approximately $7.2 million on expenses related to the settlement agreement through the end of April.

Referring to next year's $5 million budget figure for reform expenses, Murray said after the press conference: "It's going to cost more than that in the long run." 

One of the pricey cornerstones of the police reform effort is the business intelligence system, which includes software and databases that would be designed to help the department store, manage and use a wide variety of data about officer performance and crime. The ballpark cost estimate for building the system is currently $12 million.

"Our hope is that because we've got such a great team that's being put together on this," Murray said, "that it will cost less than that."

The city had tentatively planned to issue a request for vendor proposals for the system in mid-August. But the request was put off because of ongoing challenges surrounding the department's notoriously messy data. A federal judge recently gave the department until March to issue the request for proposals. O'Toole said that she predicts it will be out by January, calling March a "worst case scenario."

"Some may have perceived that we were dragging our feet," she said. "We actually discovered that the business intelligence system draws from a number of different databases."

"Unless the integrity of that data is confirmed," she added, "it will be junk in, junk out."

In the meantime the department has implemented CompStat. Pioneered by the New York  Police Department in the 1990s, CompStat is a law enforcement approach that uses crime data and patterns to guide the deployment of officers and other resources.

One of the new police department line items in Murray's proposed budget will be a civilian chief information officer with an IT background. This person would likely play an important role in implementing the business intelligence system.

The department has already hired a new civilian chief operating officer, Mike Wagers, who is the former director of law enforcement operations and support for the International Association of Chiefs of Police. Wagers holds a Ph.D. from Rutgers University and describes himself as having an affinity for data-driven policing technology. He is already involved in pushing the computer upgrade forward.

The mayor on Friday also touted the department's work to add 50 new cops by the end of 2015, moving the city closer toward his goal of adding 100 officers to the ranks by the end of his term.

The mayor's 2015-2016 proposed budget will include $3.3 million to fill every recruit class available to Seattle at the Wasington State Criminal Justice Training Center for both of those years.

Officer-worn body cameras also came up during Friday's news conference. Last year's city budget included funding for a pilot program to test the recording devices by issuing them to a handful of officers.

The police department delayed the program, citing concerns about running afoul of state privacy laws. Among those concerns were the legal complications that could arise if officers recorded footage in a person's home and then the video became subject to a public disclosure request. The department said earlier this year that the pilot program would start in July. But that never happened. In the meantime, other police departments in Washington and around the nation have been testing and using the cameras.

In addition to getting the right policies in place, O'Toole said the department needs to figure out a way to handle the large amounts of new video footage the cameras will generate. This comes on top of the footage from in-car video cameras that are already in use.

"I'm absolutely committed to the body-worn cameras," O'Toole said. "I'd like to see the policies and procedures finalized very soon, and just get to it."

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