Podcast | How reform gave way to ‘Defund the Police’ in Seattle

The city spent a decade working to reform its police department. Then, the turmoil of 2020 started a new movement.

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Defund SPD Protest

Torin Bracey chants during a ‘Count Every Vote, Protect Every Person’ rally in Pioneer Square, Nov. 4, 2020. Hundreds of people peacefully marched through Pioneer Square with limited police presence — a noticeable difference from the night before, which ended in multiple arrests of protesters. (Dorothy Edwards/Crosscut)

In the midst of the anti-racism protests that followed the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police last spring, a new cry went out: "Defund the police!" And in the weeks that followed, Seattle city leaders appeared to be listening.

Members of the Seattle City Council, responding to strong advocacy from inside and outside government, pledged to cut the police force by 50%. Cuts did come, but in the end they were less than revolutionary and the debate became muddled and complex. 

Subscribe to This Changes Everything on Apple PodcastsSpotifyStitcher, or Podbean.

For the second season of This Changes Everything, host Sara Bernard and reporter David Kroman are seeking to bring clarity to that debate. Over the course of six episodes, all available now, the podcast will take a close look at challenges of policing today and whether it’s even possible to downsize the police force and create a new public safety regime that is more equitable and safe.  

This first episode starts by looking back, about a decade, to Seattle’s previous efforts toward reform and examines how the events in June led many city leaders to decide the earlier reform efforts were the wrong solution.

Keep listening:

Episode 2: Seattle police, social workers and mental health crisis calls

Episode 3: When police response to a crisis call goes wrong

Episode 4: An Oregon city’s decades-old alternative to police

Episode 5: Defund, then what? Seattle activists’ ideas for police dollars

Episode 6: When defunding the police meets Seattle’s political reality


Transcripts for This Changes Everything are the product of a third-party service. The audio stands as the official record for the reporting in this series.

Anonymous speaker: [00:00:00] This episode of This Changes Everything is presented by the Crosscut Festival, May 3rd through the 8th, online and in Seattle.

Sara Bernard: [00:00:07] It's late May, 2020. George Floyd has just died at the hands of Minneapolis police.

Thousands and thousands and thousands of protestors are hitting the streets in cities across the county

These are hardly the first major protests over police brutality in recent years.

This time, in the middle of a raging global pandemic, something feels different.

There are more people out marching than ever before in recent memory. There are more people watching.

And this time, almost immediately, there's this new rallying cry. Not just "reform the police." "Defund the police."

And then, within weeks in some cases, cities across the country. Actually started doing it.

I'm Sara Bernard. And this is This Changes Everything, a podcast from Crosscut about the new normal. In the first season of this podcast, we focused on the coronavirus pandemic and how it transformed the way we live. This season. we're looking at the next big thing to hit 2020, this new moment in policing.

Love it or hate it, right now we're in a moment of reckoning around how we police, who we police and, all of a sudden, whether we should police in the same way at all. Crosscut staff reporter David Kroman has been covering the Seattle Police Department for years now. And he says that in Seattle, like many other cities, this is truly unprecedented. Seattle was one of the first cities to begin moving money out of its police department's budget in response to the protests.

David Kroman: [00:03:39] To watch that change so quickly is pretty astounding. 

Sara Bernard: [00:03:41] And to date, it has made some of the deepest cuts. And, of course not, everyone is on board with this.

These issues are complex and deeply controversial. But now it's like the whole debate has shifted. For a lot of people, it's suddenly not just about improving accountability and training within police departments. It's about starting to rethink public safety entirely. Stay with us.

So, how did we get here exactly. Until this past summer, the conversation around policing and police reform in Seattle had a pretty different focal point, the federal consent decree.

If you've lived in the region at least a few years, you've probably heard of it. But here's David Kroman with the quick version. It starts about a decade ago, in 2010.

David Kroman: [00:04:52] Community members had perceived that there was this pattern of Seattle police officers using a lot of force when they didn't think they needed to be using force.

And that really came to a head when John T. Williams was shot in the back by a police officer.

You know, it was fairly clearly an inappropriate thing for that officer to have done. And it sparked all this outrage. So, these community groups got together and basically wrote a letter to Barack Obama and his Department of Justice and asked the federal government to come in and take a look under the hood of the Seattle Police Department so that they would have this record or, you know, proof that the things they were seeing and feeling were in fact real and happening.

That happened and the federal government agreed and confirmed that there were a lot of problems with the Seattle police department, particularly around uses of force and bias. And so then, basically, the Department of Justice threatened to take the City to court. They said, this is unconstitutional, you're violating people's constitutional rights, we're going to take you to court. And then, you know, like in any court proceeding, instead of it going to trial, they settled. But instead of giving money to the Department of Justice, the settlement says, we're going to fix this. We will do better at this. And the Department of Justice agreed.

And so thus begins this long process to fix these things that are deemed as unconstitutional. Um, the path to getting there is really complicated and really weedy, but that's the basic nutshell is, um, the way that the Seattle Police Department was doing his job before was unconstitutional. And, uh, we are going to bring a federal judge in to make sure that you fix that.

Sara Bernard: [00:07:13] The whole litigation process took a couple of years, but officially the federal government's oversight of the Seattle Police Department was launched in July 2012. And just a few years later, the police chief at the time, Kathleen O'Toole was invited as a special guest to president Barack Obama's 2016 State of the Union Address.

David Kroman: [00:07:35] Kathleen O'Toole was invited to that State of the Union because, on paper, Seattle had sort of been a success story of the obama administration's definition of reform. But at the same time, there were still like a ton of people who looked at Kathleen O'Toole going to that State of the Union as a sort of frustrating thing, because they didn't feel like the success that was being celebrated was necessarily actually being realized on the ground.

And so, um, what actually constitutes, you know, meaningful change in the eyes of the people who are being policed, you know, like who's defining success and what reform actually means.

Sara Bernard: [00:08:27] There were big things that had changed in Seattle's police department at the time. You had the introduction of body cameras and the creation of a force review board among other things. But when it comes to the deeper issues, especially around racial bias and community trust, that was hardly mission accomplished.

David Kroman: [00:08:43] I would say as a whole public opinion of the Seattle Police Department was pretty good. Um, people basically trusted the Seattle Police Department, but the question is who, when you talk about the community who within the community, um, white people have had a, had a decent view and relationship with law enforcement for-basically-ever. Black communities, in particular, not as much.

You know, so we have seen improvement in surveys of trust of the police department in the black community, but it is still greatly lacking.

Sara Bernard: [00:09:20] In the last 10 years. 42.3% of the people shot by Seattle. Police were Black, according to department data, but Black people make up less than 7% of the population of the City of Seattle.

Still. In 2018, a federal judge found the department to be in full and effective compliance with the consent decree. Oversight isn't entirely over. That's a long story for another day, but short version is, things have improved. At least according to the feds.

David Kroman: [00:09:48] By a lot of metrics, the Seattle Police Department has done a better job than they used to, um, uses of force appear to be down. When you say force is used, it's more mild. There is a stronger disciplinary system than there was 8, 10 years ago.

But when you dig into these numbers, they are still very disproportionate for Black people in particular. Native people also. And, you know, Hispanic, Latino people to a certain extent as well, but particularly for Black communities, you know, when you look at these improvements and you see these celebrations of, you know, the police department is using so much less force, there are still some things that really are, head-scratching like, uh, you know, Black people are way more likely to be stopped by the Seattle police and, yet, in those stops are less likely to have a weapon or something dangerous, which, you know, that suggests that those stops are truly disproportionate because innocent Black people are being stopped at greater rates than innocent white people.

Sara Bernard: [00:10:54] And what David says is also important to recognize now in this sudden explosive new moment is that even with all these improvements at SPD, the basic structure of the institution that never really changed.

David Kroman: [00:11:06] Basically, since I started being a reporter, I've been following this reform process, which is amazingly slow and amazingly incremental.

You have these fights and hold debates around, you know, when an officer is allowed to turn off their body camera. You know, that's a whole thing that is fought over for weeks and months. Um, you have, uh, fights over how many investigators in the internal affairs unit are civilian. How many of them are sworn officers. You know, these are fights that I covered for, you know, literally years. And then, in a matter of weeks, I would say suddenly that whole conversation is basically rejected, including by people who were at the table for those conversations saying, 'We are no longer trying to reform the system. We want to create a new system," which again, after sort of watching years of incrementalism plod along, to watch that change so quickly is pretty astounding.

I think specifically of Council President Lorena Gonzalez, who started as a civil rights lawyer, suing police officers. She worked briefly for the mayor as, um, his lawyer working on some of this reform stuff. She was elected to continue these consent decree reforms. She worked most of her first couple of years in office on ushering through some reforms. And then, over the summer, has declared them to all be a failure.

Lorena Gonzalez: [00:13:08] I fundamentally believed that reform of a police department was something that was possible.

Sara Bernard: [00:13:14] This is Gonzalez speaking at a special meeting on August 6th, when she and two other council members presented their vision for taking funds from the Seattle police.

Lorena Gonzalez: [00:13:22] But what we saw earlier this summer in response to the George Floyd demonstrations, and what we're seeing across the country, has reframed my perspective on that point.

David Kroman: [00:13:33] And basically said, uh, I think that was not time well spent. I think we should not have been thinking of it that way. I think we should have been thinking of it in the way that we are now.

Lorena Gonzalez: [00:13:42] I have said before, and I'll say it again, that you cannot reform something that is fundamentally broken.

David Kroman: [00:13:48] Even as we have made these improvements, these sort of incremental improvements, they have left behind Black and brown communities. And that to me is unacceptable.

It's a pretty astounding repudiation from somebody who has been working in that system for as long as she has.

Lorena Gonzalez: [00:14:05] This is a responsible approach for us to do. And more importantly, it's the right thing to do.

David Kroman: [00:14:11] Thinking back on Barack Obama hosting Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O'Toole at a State of the Union, um, which is this celebration of improving within the system to now, which is pressure to tear down that very system, I'd say we, we are in a vastly different place than we used to be.

Sara Bernard: [00:14:31] We'll be right back.

David Kroman: [00:14:37] This last year has changed the way we talk about race, policing, public health, politics, the climate, the arts, and the economy. And in many ways it's changed how we talk to one another. But it hasn't stopped the conversation.

This spring, the Crosscut Festival will keep that conversation going with a week of events where journalists, politicians, artists and newsmakers will talk about our uncertain present and our possible future. We'll explore the issues that are shaping our country and our world.

This year's guests include PBS Newshour anchor  Judy Woodruf, travel expert Rick Steves, Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal, former secretary of labor Robert Reich and many more who will be announced on March 8th.

Join us at the Crosscut Festival. May 3rd through the 8th. For more information, and to purchase tickets, go to crosscut.com/festival.

Okay. Back to the show.

Sara Bernard: [00:16:02] So, David's been covering the Seattle City Council for years. Here's his 2 cents on where they're at when it comes to the police.

David Kroman: [00:16:09] I think there are a lot of people who feel regret on this council. I think there's, they often look back on decisions and feel regretful about things like votes to build new police stations and, um, past stances they had taken on recruiting new police officers and growing the police force and in enacting reforms that involved giving more money to the police department.

I think the council found itself in a place where suddenly the protests were really calling into question a lot of those decisions and it was ... my hunch is it was sort of uncomfortable for them and they understood that the ground had shifted beneath them and really wanted to be out in front of that and not look back on where they were and sort of have regret for being too cautious. And so I thought we saw some pretty dramatic and quick calls for things like cutting the police department by 50%, that was one of the demands of the protestors.

And we had, within a month, we had a majority of the council expressing some level of support for that idea.

Sara Bernard: [00:17:48] A 50% cut to the Seattle Police Department did get plenty of pushback, ... and because of that and other practical reasons, that didn't happen.

David Kroman: [00:18:23] There were things that the council, at the time when they made that commitment, didn't really understand, I think, which is that a lot of what they wanted to cut had already been spent. There's some really difficult labor union questions involved, and so what they ended up doing was cutting, you know, something closer to 5%, a much smaller amount, which is about a hundred full-time positions in the police department.

Sara Bernard: [00:18:56] The budget for 2021, which passed in November, included significantly steeper cuts, which we'll get into later. But still, not 50%.

David Kroman: [00:19:11] So, you know, when compared to 50%, obviously, it's not that. But, you know, you have to go back many years and I don't even know how far back to find any time when the Seattle City Council or City Hall has actually cut the Seattle Police Department's budget. Through the Great Recession, through the dot com bust, the police department's budget continued to go up.

Part of that is a reflection of just how dire the financial situation is because of COVID-19. I mean, even Mayor Jenny Durkan proposed a budget that included some cuts to the Seattle Police Department. But I think that the combination of just how bad the financial situation is combined with the pressure that the city council was under, they felt like, you know, even once they realized they weren't gonna make a 50% cut, they understood clearly that they needed to do something as signal to the people who had been protesting that when they say they're going to start re-imagining tearing down policing that they're actually going to be acting on it.

Sara Bernard: [00:20:24] So, over the summer Defund the Police became such a big issue. Such a household term, even. David says, in addition to reporting on this stuff, he's been having to field lots of questions from his family and community too.

David Kroman: [00:20:36] As a local who grew up in what is essentially the suburbs, um, and as a reporter, you know, I have a lot of family members or friends or whatever who, um, like to ask me what is going on in Seattle and lately that has been, you know, what's up with this Defund the Police? You know, this is crazy that we're gonna get rid of our police depart?

Sara Bernard: [00:20:57] It is true that Defund the Police can be pretty unpopular. The vast majority of Americans, if you ask them, do you support defunding the police? They'll say no. Anecdotally, at least, same goes for people across Seattle. A Crosscut Elway Poll in October found that just 20% of respondents in Seattle and King County supported cutting the police department by half.

But there's a bigger context here, a sort of analysis going on that's actually much less contentious than it might seem.

David Kroman: [00:21:50] If you lay out for people who are skeptical of the idea of defunding the police, the on the ground realities, which are police are the ones who are handling people in mental health crisis, police are spending a huge amount of their time arresting people experiencing homelessness. Um, they are responding to people overdosing on heroin. If you, if you kind of lay those things out and you ask, is that what the police should be doing or do we feel comfortable sending the police to those situations? And do we think that they're going to do a good job at those situations, even skeptics of the idea of defunding the police often say no, that doesn't sound great. And by the way, if you ask police that same question, they also will say, no, we don't want to be going to these things. We're not trained to be doing these things or not trained enough, at least.

And so, in that context, the idea of defunding the police, which is we take those jobs away from the police department and give them to somebody who is better equipped to deal with it, that turns out to not be a hugely controversial idea. And, in fact, if you look at polling where, if you ask people on a poll, "Do you support defunding the police?" or "Do you support cutting the police department by 50%?" so far the answers have been pretty negative. People mostly don't support that. But if you ask them, "Do you support reinvesting money that is currently spent on law enforcement in things like mental health and substance use treatment?" that number goes way up. It's not universal, but it's closer to 50%.

Sara Bernard: [00:24:00] That's true. In that same Crosscut Elway Poll from October where just 20% of respondents supported cutting the Seattle police by half, 54% said they supported taking money from the police and investing it in social services and community programs.

David Kroman: [00:24:14] And, uh, you know, I think that is a really interesting side of this conversation that, in fact, the term "defund the police," while to some people does mean something that's genuinely controversial, I think for a lot of people it means something that is actually fairly intuitive when you break it down, when you kind of get, get beyond the actual words, "defund the police."

Sara Bernard: [00:24:42] There are some people who really do want to get rid of police straight up.

David Kroman: [00:24:46] Not only do police not make people safer, they make people less safe. That's the sort of police abolitionist argument,

Sara Bernard: [00:24:53] But what Defund the Police more broadly signifies for a lot of people isn't really defunding so much as funding.

Can we invest in systems that help support people and more sustainably solve the kinds of social problems we tend to police away? You know, schools, not prisons.

David Kroman: [00:25:10] So, in that world, Defund the Police means use money that has historically been spent on sort of emergency stop-gap measures, aka the police, and invest that into something more sustainable, build out more mental health services, do the things that the police are doing poorly, but do them well and do them somewhere else.

Sara Bernard: [00:25:38] The Seattle Police Department has, of course, been invested in reforming itself for a long time. There's been training and more training to help officers become better and better equipped to handle a wider and wider variety of interactions. But this past summer, it was the first time really ever that money was taken away. in order to ask the question, "Is this what police should be doing?"

David Kroman: [00:26:03] I think it's gotten to the point where people are feeling pretty desperate for something that will actually create more long-term sustainable solutions. And it's clear that those solutions are not and likely will not come from the police department.

Sara Bernard: [00:26:25] So, How is this going to work? What are those solutions? There's major controversy here around the whole idea of taking money away from the police, of course, but also, among people who on the face of things seem to agree.

In the next five episodes we're gonna explore some of that, the complex debate happening in Seattle and across the country.

What does defunding the police really mean? And, if not armed officers, then who?

The truth is, so far, there really aren't that many tested, scaled models out there for alternatives to police response. Whatever happens now, a lot of it is going to be brand new. In part, for that reason, we'll spend several episodes this season diving into the one alternative that does have some precedent. One thing that is getting a lot of attention right now: crisis calls.

David Kroman: [00:27:17] Part of the sort of ongoing settlement agreement specifically focused on improving interactions between officers and people in mental health crisis.

Sara Bernard: [00:27:36] That's next time on This Changes Everything.

Thanks for listening to This Changes Everything. This episode was reported by David Kroman and produced by me, Sara Bernard. The story editor was Donna Blankinship and the executive producer was Mark Baumgarten. Our cover art is by Greg Cohen. You can subscribe to This Changes Everything on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you listen.

And if you like the show, please rate and review us. It really helps other people find us.

For more on This Changes Everything and other Crosscut podcasts, go to crosscut.com/podcasts.

For the latest political, environmental and culture news from the Pacific Northwest, visit crosscut.com.

This Changes Everything is a product of Cascade Public Media.

I'm Sara Bernard. You can listen to all of the episodes in this series right now at crosscut.com or wherever you get your podcasts.

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