Seattle council trims police budget, a small step toward protesters’ demands

The cuts are a part of a broader effort to address the economic devastation left by COVID-19.

A Seattle police officer stands before the department's East Precinct, as crews clean up graffiti, take down public art and officers reenter the station following an emergency order by Mayor Jenny Durkan to dismantle the Capitol Hill Occupation Protest (CHOP) area, July 1, 2020. (Shaminder Dulai/Crosscut)

Seattle has begun defunding the police — but only slightly. 

Budget cuts approved in a 7-1 Monday afternoon vote by the Seattle City Council do not meet the dreams of protesters to cut police funding by 50%, nor do they match the worst fears of the mayor and the Seattle Police Department. The police are not being abolished and, in the coming weeks, the city is unlikely to see an immediate dip in the number of officers patrolling the streets.

But as the protests over the killing of George Floyd reverberate across the country, the speed with which Seattle has moved stands out. With its vote on a full package of 2020 budget amendments — part of a broader sprint to address the coronavirus’s fiscal devastation — Seattle is one of the few cities taking steps this year to actually shrink the footprint of its police department. Even in Minneapolis, where Floyd was killed and the protests began, the city’s headline-grabbing promises to tear down its department have been delayed until at least 2021.

“The Black Lives Matter movement is not new,” said Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda. “But what’s new is the way in which we’re responding to their calls for action. This is our beginning, this is our effort to show we’re taking first and important steps to right historic wrongs, to begin building that trust back with community and to make it clear that this is only the first step in that process.”

Only Councilmember Kshama Sawant voted against the new budget, arguing it did not reduce the police department's budget enough. 

In a statement, a spokesperson for Mayor Jenny Durkan continued to express concern over what the mayor's office believes has not been a productive dialogue between branches of government. 

"It is unfortunate Council has refused to engage in a collaborative process to work with the Mayor, Chief [Carmen] Best, and community members to develop a budget and policies that respond to community needs while accounting for – not just acknowledging – the significant labor and legal implications involved in transforming the Seattle Police Department," the spokesperson, Kelsey Nyland, said.  

The measures that passed Monday represent the collision of two unprecedented moments in Seattle history: the economic devastation wrought by the coronavirus and the protests calling for radical change to public safety. 

The council and the mayor face a roughly $400 million shortfall in this year’s budget, a hole so deep that City Hall was forced to revisit its 2020 budget. On Monday, the city’s budget office released new 2020 projections that were $26 million worse than previous, already dismal forecasts. 

While some of the pain will be eased through rainy day, emergency and state and federal funding, the city also will slash dollars this year from projects in transportation, parks and elsewhere, with more cuts certain to come next year.  

The council also recently passed a new tax on large businesses, which it hopes will buoy the city’s finances in coming years, although Mayor Jenny Durkan has been skeptical. 

Most keenly debated, however, was how much of these cuts would be borne by the Seattle Police Department. The council’s cuts represent a reduction of 100 full-time police jobs, either through layoffs or attrition, out of roughly 1,400 sworn positions in the department. It is a long way from the 50% funding cuts demanded by protesters and promised by a majority of the council. But council members say there are more cuts to come, as they move into deliberations for the 2021 budget. The 2020 cuts, several have said, represent a “down payment.”

For the advocates at the forefront of demanding a smaller police budget, the reductions for 2020 are less than they were initially promised, said Shaun Glaze, research director of King County Equity Now, a coalition of organizations that have caught the ear of most of the council.

Still, said Glaze, coalition members are hopeful that a real shift in mindset has taken root in City Hall. “I was really encouraged every time a city council member said, ‘Hey, we recently voted in a way that increased police budgets and we’ve been doing that for a long time without questioning, and we haven’t been doing the work up until this point,’ ” said Glaze.

Moving forward, Glaze said they’re cautiously optimistic about a continued shift toward community-based public safety, but will believe it when they see it.

The ongoing budget fight has heightened tensions between branches of government in a way not seen for years. As the council has pushed forward with “transforming how the city of Seattle ensures community safety for everyone,” as council President Lorena González put it, Durkan has urged a slower process. 

“The simple fact is that the mayor … has strong ideological opposition to our plan,” González said last week. “The mayor does not agree with the city council and a majority of the people of Seattle who believe that we need to substantially reduce the size and scope of the police department."

In a brief interview, Durkan repeated that she is committed to a “reimagining” of the police department, a task she agreed would move forward in earnest this fall.

Unlike the city council's vision, however, Durkan’s is less focused on the size of the police force. While she has promised $100 million in new investments in community organizations and alternatives to police, she is hesitant to commit to any specific reductions in police staffing.

“I think the budget season we’re going into, there could be layoffs in every single city department,” she said. “To me, it’s not a numbers game. It’s: do we have the resources we need to do what the people expect of us?”

Durkan said the community has made it clear it wants more resources for public health and harm reduction and that has to be built.

“But I’ve also heard very loudly from most community members that they also want to be able to call the police. So we have to make sure that whatever number we’re at that, if someone calls 911 at 2 a.m. in any part of the city, they’re going to get a response in minutes,” she added.

The ripple effects of the Floyd protests have varied across the country. Minneapolis was the first to commit to transformative change. But voters there will have to wait, as a possible ballot measure to change the city’s charter has been delayed.

Louisa Aviles, director of the Group Violence Intervention at the National Network for Safe Communities, said cities’ responses to the “defund the police” demands fall on a spectrum “that runs from reductions in overtime budgets all the way to allocating a greater proportion of the city’s funding toward non-law enforcement capacity.”

“In practical terms, I think every city that’s grappling with this question is trying to figure out how to continue to produce public safety in creative ways and in a landscape where, at least in the immediate term, some form of law enforcement is part of that equation,” she said.

On the one hand, Albuquerque, New Mexico, has launched a new department of community safety, designed to siphon some calls away from police. But the move has, so far, not come with concrete reductions in the police budget.

In New York, the city has canceled recruiting classes, cutting off over 1,000 new officers from entering the department.

What is consistent, though, is the push for change is based on a diminishing faith in police, said Aviles.

“If police legitimacy is something like the belief by the people that police are authorized to and ought to use their legal power to enforce the law, then we are nationally having a crisis of police legitimacy,” said Aviles. “People are broadly feeling like the police do not, in fact, have the authority to and should not be doing things the way they are doing things.”

The Seattle City Council can tug on the department’s purse strings, but cannot dictate how Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best responds to the cuts. Members are using a budget trick — provisos — to try to exact the types of cuts they’d prefer, but have acknowledged it is ultimately Best’s decision.

The council is asking the department to cut 32 patrol officers by November, leave 30 positions empty as officers retire or transfer and make a host of other cuts to public affairs, mounted patrol, harbor patrol, SWAT, in-school officers and elsewhere.

The council also voted to cap the salaries of the department’s 13 executives who are not part of any police union. Originally, Best faced a drastic salary cut as a result, but the council restored the bulk of her pay on Monday after members realized the reduction would have made her among the worst paid department heads in the city. 

In a narrow vote, the council also initially approved eliminating the police department’s “Navigation Team,” which assists in clearing homeless encampments. The move has been a long-sought goal by local homeless advocacy organizations. At the same time, a group of business associations warned of “severe negative impacts” of defunding the Navigation Team. 

The overall cuts to the police department are unlikely to result in significant savings this year. The city must reckon with its police unions for officers, management, parking and dispatch, all four of which have issued demands to bargain.

Last week, Best called the moves “reckless” and warned the layoffs will result in the department losing its youngest, most diverse class. The council has countered that she can ask the city’s Public Safety Civil Service Commission to approve out-of-order layoffs and target officers with the most complaints against them.

The city is still coalescing around a vision of what might take the place of police officers. Durkan and the council agree in principle that there are calls that officers don’t need to respond to.

Councilmember Andrew Lewis has proposed building behavioral health services into the city’s 911 system. Additionally, as part of a work plan for the coming year, the council has also proposed a new “Department of Community Safety and Violence Prevention.” ( “I don’t object to the creation of another department, although that seems to be what government seems to do worst,” Durkan said.)

The council has earmarked $17 million in 2020 to go toward community-based organizations, although it has not yet defined exactly how that money will be allocated. Durkan  also has not said how she will budget her pledged $100 million. 

“We recognize that we need to take a careful approach, and we need to scale up other public safety programs before we can begin the process of drastically reducing the size of the police department,” González said Thursday.

Looking forward a year, Glaze with King County Equity Now is hopeful people’s basic needs will be met in a more effective way as a result of the current debates in City Hall. “It would be great to live in a world where there are so many tools to solve problems that we don’t feel like we have one single strategy to fix it all,” Glaze said. “For a long time that strategy has been to call 911 and have someone with a gun show up.”

 

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