Mayor Bruce Harrell talks SCOTUS homelessness case and SPD culture

In a Cascade PBS interview, Seattle’s mayor shares how his background shapes his work, from his stance on public safety to his hope for an NBA return.

Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell in his office at City Hall.

Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell in his office at City Hall. (Genna Martin/Cascade PBS)

Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell likes to look at every challenge from a variety of directions, including the perspective he gained growing up in Seattle in a multi-racial working-class family. 

Everything from his childhood and his education to his other life and work experiences have informed how he approaches the job and tackles Seattle’s biggest challenges – from public safety to public trust. 

Cascade PBS sat down with Harrell recently for a wide-ranging interview and learned a lot about the mayor’s thinking – as a Seattleite, as the son of Black and Japanese parents, as a sports fan and outdoors enthusiast and as the leader of this city.

If you prefer, you can also listen to this conversation as a podcast on Northwest Reports or watch it on camera in two parts on The Newsfeed.

This interview has been edited for both length and clarity.

Cascade PBS: Of all the issues you are working on, do you think the Downtown revitalization plan has been one of your biggest accomplishments so far?

Mayor Harrell: I don’t try to measure or size up different things that we do. One is not more important than the other because depending on who’s experiencing what we’re trying to do, it may be more important to them. So Downtown, for example, is critical to our success, but not so much more than someone living in a neighborhood that may not even come Downtown.

Across our country, many downtowns have suffered. E-commerce has changed the way people live, shop, work. COVID has affected the way people live, work, shop. And so now, instead of just trying to go back to the good old days, we have to ask ourselves, what do we build? What are people’s behavior and how do we use that to make a great, vibrant city?

We have over 100,000 people living Downtown. It is a great place to live. We want it to be active. We know that day care is an issue. We know that dog parks are in need. We know that we want to increase density in certain areas. And so we look at our building code to think about how do we activate it, number one. Number two is we know that from a public safety standpoint, that illumination is critical. Activities, the arts, the theater. song and dance, if you will, are critical toward vibrancy.

How do we increase foot traffic? How do we get people wanting to go Downtown? How do we want more people to live Downtown? I’ve talked to almost every mayor of every major city to understand what they’re doing as well.

So we think we’ve given a good blueprint on what Seattle should be in our Downtown area for the next several years, and a lot of it is working. And I’ll give you one good example. If you look at City Hall Park next to the courthouse … that place was an eyesore. There was litter everywhere. People were sitting around and making it unwelcoming for others. We’ve cleaned up the area and invested in lighting to make it welcoming. So I would say it’s a great accomplishment, but all part of trying to get our city back to where we need it to be.

Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell sat down for an interview with Cascade PBS at City Hall, May 2, 2024. (Genna Martin/Cascade PBS)

Most mayors and city councils don’t always have the best relationship. But the current Council shares some philosophical values with you, and many on this Council are people who you have endorsed. Do you think this will play an integral role in accomplishing your priorities?

Absolutely. I think, you know, I served on the Council for 12 years. And I can say as a Council member, I could literally count on one hand the number of times I saw the mayor on that floor. And I know as a Council member I could count on maybe two hands the number of times I met with certain mayors. Some mayors I never met with. And what I’ve tried to do, even with last year’s Council, is I’ll go to the second floor. I’ll understand their agenda. They ran for office. I don’t want to say to be a superstar, but they have their own agenda and what they want to do for the communities and for their district, or even for the city at large. So what I try to do is help them. And I’m sure we are aligned on most things. We may disagree, but for me, and it’s served me well as a person in the city, every organization I’ve been around, I’ve never said, hey, I need you to make me look good. I never lead that way.

And people that have been around me since I’ve been in grade school have known that when I’m around teams, that’s what I fight for. It’s just to make sure that the team works together. 

This new Council, again, they have their own agenda: around public safety, housing, income inequality, race and social justice. They are very aligned with what the city wants, and that’s most important. You run for Council to be part of a team. You’re not running to be a superstar. You’re like a baseball team or football team or a soccer team, or, dare I say, an NBA basketball team. You’re running to win collectively.

Quite candidly, if you look at our history, many Council members really missed the mark. They really missed the mark because it was all about their personal engine and they were misaligned. So this Council, I’m very confident that we’ll work together. We will have some disagreements, but we won’t be disagreeable. I’m excited for this city to see what we’re going to do together.

I was watching the press conference that took place a couple of days ago, and a lot of questions came up about public safety. SPD is facing lawsuits from within, from longtime women employees and cops over sexual harassment, racism and gender bias. And this week, you stood before that on that podium, and you said that you were going to hire an outside investigator to investigate these claims. Do we have a culture problem in SPD?

You asked a question: Do we have a culture problem in SPD? Which then means a thousand-plus folks and saying, Hey, you over there, you have a culture problem. I’m part of their culture. I’m the chief executive officer of the city. I recognize that cultures always have to be changed for the good. And how do you change a culture? Well, first of all, you become that culture that you tolerate. So if I allow everyone to come to meetings repeatedly late, or if I allow race and gender discrimination to be implicit or explicit in behaviors, then that becomes the culture. So one of my life’s missions has always been to try to change cultures for the good.

At SPD, yes, it’s been a male-dominated culture, to some extent militaristic in their approach. This is the history of policing in this country. And while I never subscribed to a quote-unquote defund movement, the idea behind the defund movement was, How do we take out the militaristic culture in a department and re-energize that department to realize they are to protect and serve and that no one should die over a routine traffic ticket?

And that you don’t ignore race. You realize there could be cultural or racial biases in everything that you do.

I was hit with a question and that is how many complaints does it take before you re-evaluate the chief? That’s a fair question. Only one. It’s not the number of complaints. It’s whether the chief can do his or her job.

I expect each department here to understand the vulnerabilities in their culture and to take action. So the question for this chief is, given the history of cultural or gender bias – I should say in gender bias in police departments generally – what are you doing effectively to mitigate that, to build the culture that we need? What could happen with this kind of commitment toward parity and equity and kindness? And he’s being evaluated in that sense right now. And so it’s a work in progress.

Now, I picked him out of a national search. I believed in his ability. He has a history with the department and he’s done some magnificent work. But for me, I have a certain standard of excellence that I’m held to, that I hold myself to every single day. In my lifetime, I’ve tried to push myself to the limits of excellence in everything that I do. So the question for me is, is he meeting that mark? And that is a process I’m going through right now.

What do you think the next police union contract should include when we talk about police accountability? And will it be enough to end the federal consent decree?

So, the first thing is I’m confident it will be enough to end the consent decree. Now, I just have to put a little skin in the game. I don’t know this for a fact, so let me give a disclaimer, but I think I’m the only mayor in recent history, at least maybe in our entire history, that’s actually cross-examined police officers on the stand. I was a fairly accomplished attorney. I take accountability very seriously. And I think everyone in the community knows that, that that’s been my walk for as long as I’ve been in this city.

Regarding police accountability, we have accomplished a lot. I wanted the ability to bring in civilians for some of the work. I wanted the flexibility to bring in park rangers for some of the traditional gun-and-badge work. We were able to look at the 100-day requirement by which we have to investigate potential criminal misconduct. So from an accountability standpoint, we accomplished a heck of a lot. And we’ll continue to do so.

You look at our use of force, which is less than 1%. We are modeling what reasonable force should look like. So we’re doing some real good police work out there. Given the limitations of our resources and our personnel power out there, our numbers are still below where we want to be, from a staffing standpoint, but we are doing some really, really good work.

So when I tell the accountability people that want more, I say specifically, what do you want? Because we have the Office of Public Accountability, the officer Inspector General, the Community Police Commission, we have a robust accountability system. So rather than people saying nebulous claims that we want more accountability, tell me specifically.

I know there are two areas that I’d still like to achieve. Oh, you’re going to tell me.

Mayor Harrell with Councilmembers-elect Bob Kettle, Joy Hollingsworth, Maritza Rivera, Rob Saka, and Cathy Moore at City Hall on Dec. 15, 2023. (Josh Cohen/Cascade PBS)

Well, I’m thinking one in particular is disciplining officers. I think that’s one that people are saying, when is that going to reach a level where the discipline, they have more flexibility in the statute to make sure that happens? If an officer steps out of line while out there on the street?

I think that our current Chief, Diaz, has shown remarkable leadership in how he has disciplined officers. In fact, in the older system, it was our inability to discipline officers. So I’m not seeing case after case where the discipline of an officer for misconduct was weakened or nonexistent.

In fairness to the officers, I believe in due process. I believe that, if a person says something offensive but they said it either intentionally or unintentionally, can I train that person up? Can I coach that person up? I make mistakes every single week. I was going to say every single day, but I’ve had a good day today, so I haven’t made any.

So there’s an element of being too punitive, recognizing that there’s human contact. These are human beings. They’re not robots. On the other hand, when you look at the use of force, use of a gun, you look at strong holding or violence committed by officers. That’s the stuff that under my administration, we have zero tolerance for. So again, on a case-by-case basis, I will look at every officer and what he or she does and how they are disciplined. And if we have to revamp it, we’ll revamp it. But you look at activities that took place, you know, five, 10, 15 years ago. We’re pretty tight right now in terms of what we tolerate and what we don’t.

The court was incredibly concerned about how we dealt with crowds and protests.

From 2020, yes.

And so, again, I think we made some remarkable progress there. Are we perfect? Of course not. But again, with respect to how we discipline, I will always have a chief that understands that we do have to discipline appropriately. And, you know, justice is an interesting concept. It’s easy to define. I’ll define justice as to treat equals equally and unequal as unequally in proportion to their inequality.

Last year, we ended the year with a 7% dip in violent crime and then a 17% decline in property crime. But still, many residents are concerned about public safety. That seems to be what you continuously see or read. What do you plan to do to continue addressing that issue?

I’ll put it in two buckets: a police response and a non-police response. Then investments in infrastructure. So on the police response, we are recruiting more officers right now. We’re getting 250 to 300 applications a month. We are now living in a country, Paris, where it’s just not as cool anymore to be a police officer. That is just a reality. I asked officers who become officers, what inspired you. Because I want to tap into that. So we’re getting our recruiting numbers up. We’re changing processes that have been in place for decades. Literally, the testing procedures, the physical testing and agility exercise.

Number two, we’ve created the care department, a civilian assistant response and engagement and non-police response, because we did realize we were sending officers with a badge to situations where they needed another skill set. It’s a third department – police, fire and CARE.

A lot of people are when you think of safety, also think about pedestrian safety, cyclist safety and transportation safety. As an example, we eliminated right turns at dozens and dozens of high-collision intersections. Then you also look at crime prevention through environmental design. So in our comprehensive plan and our housing strategies and our transportation levy, we’re also looking physically even in our building codes, how do we illuminate areas to create more safety?

So our approach is holistic, including community-based solutions, realizing that some people come from trauma. Perhaps they didn’t have some of the cultural safeguards in place to prevent them from committing acts of violence. How do we go upstream? You look at our pre-K investments. I was part of the Council at the start of this movement. So we’re trying to go as far upstream as possible, realizing that even prenatal care with our nursing program is critical toward brain development from ages 0 to 4. So, again, my approach to public safety is not just more cops. I think about every human being reaching their potential.

By ordinary statistics, I shouldn’t even be mayor. Well, my mother was interned as Japanese were, interned when she was just a young girl. She wasn’t fortunate to go to college. And my father came from the Jim Crow South as a Black man here in the ’50s. And he wasn’t college-educated. And that’s not quite the setup for a son to be the mayor of this great city of Seattle. But I was given other privileges that a lot of people didn’t have. They loved each other hard, and they created something in me to self-optimize. Now what is that something? And how can I duplicate that? I get energized about it because when I roll out our plans and our investment strategy, I asked my senior team, how are we investing in people such that they self-optimize? Because the problems you see out there, people huddled around tinfoil, something broke down in their life and a police officer can’t fix that.

CARE team community crisis responders Abdillahi Mohamed and Chris Inaba (in blue) take over for two SPD patrol officers as they attempt to help a woman who had just been evicted from her apartment and was in a state of crisis. The CARE team spent several hours with the woman working to calm her and find her emergency housing for the night. (Genna Martin/Cascade PBS)

How would you rate the CARE department at this point?

I think they’re awesome. And I think Chief Amy Smith is doing a magnificent job of both recruiting the right people and the employees there are. I think they understand the significant role they play. They’ve eliminated a need for the police to go out often. They’ve de-escalated so many situations. Now there’s other safety type of people around that we’ve started under my administration. We’re taking the park rangers out, for example. I think I want to say up to, like, 26 or 28 park rangers from two, I believe, and my numbers might be a little off.

In park situations, which should be open and accessible to all, I don’t need police going out there and just apprehending people when perhaps they are doing some stuff they shouldn’t be doing. We will call the police if we have to, but that’s not a desired approach.

We have community service officers, many are hired from the communities that they serve, and they can be a liaison between the Police Department and the city of Seattle. So again, we’ve increased the CSOs in our approach. And so when I say we’re looking for a holistic approach, I have new types of employees out there doing new kinds of things to take some of the pressure off of our police officers.

You mentioned the numbers are down with officers and recruitment, and I want to dig into that. It’s been a slow progress, but there have been bonuses and incentives to entice those potential officers. So that said, do you think these higher wages will secure more people who want to become a Seattle Police officer?

I think compensation is always an interesting question, as to the role compensation alone plays into someone’s career choice. Certainly in retention, we know that plays a significant role. So we put forth a very attractive package for officers to be compensated. And I think they should be. We’re the largest city in the state and it’s a very demanding job with the challenges, and I think they should be compensated to the highest. And I’m willing to put that in front of the City Council as I have. But there’s so many other intangibles.

And so we met with private employers that are recruiting, you know, in the high-tech industry or in the educational industry, in the social media industry. How do you entice your employees? Is it compensation alone? And so we’ve come up with some new ideas. One example would be if someone’s coming from another city. Perhaps they have a spouse or partner that’s interested. How do we make it very easy for that person to have at least a pathway to employment as they relocate?

I’m an outdoors person. So if I weren’t working every single day, I’d either hike or fish or swim. So I sell Seattle. I say in 45 minutes you could snow-ski or scuba-dive, or you could hike or camp, or go to a river and do some steelhead fishing. You have all this beautiful outdoors here, and we are a multifaceted economy. We are part maritime industry, high tech, biotech and a great university system. So Seattle has a lot to offer. And I do a lot of that. I’ll actually do that tomorrow morning to a group of folks who may consider moving here. And I’m not selling snake oil.

I’m selling the fact that we are one of the most rapidly growing cities in the country; that is just a fact. And people are coming here. So it’s not just compensation. Yes, that’s a component of it, but it’s also what this area has to offer. I’ve been to other cities. I’ve been to every major city … I wouldn’t put Seattle below any of those cities. It’s an awesome city.

Certain communities that have experienced trauma, especially BIPOC communities, have in some instances had negative relationships with law enforcement. What do you say to people who have experienced mistrust of officers at points in their lives? And what are you doing in terms of, or what could you say in terms of, reassuring them about the police who patrol our streets?

Well, the first thing I would say is I don’t have to go far to talk to that community. I just have to go to a mirror. I grew up in these streets, grew up in this. I’m half Black and half Japanese. I grew up around the Black folk of the Central District. But it wasn’t just Black folk. There were Filipinos and Native Americans and white folk. But it’s primarily people of color because that’s where we lived in the Central District back in the 1960s. And if you look at my background again, I was president of a Black fraternity, and I was vice president of the Black Bar Association. And I’ve been involved in Asian and other BIPOC organizations throughout my life.

I understand mistrust; as I said earlier, I’ve cross-examined police officers. Police officers are human beings. We all have biases. I didn’t change when I became mayor. I’ve successfully won four elections in the city. What I say to communities that mistrust the police, all I can say is, I get it, man. I don’t trust government and I’m the mayor of a city.

I’ll tell you a funny story. When I was on the City Council, there was a camera that was positioned right outside my office, and it zoomed in on my office. And I said, “Hey, who’s on the other end of that camera?” They said, “Don’t worry, it’s blacked out. Your office is blacked out.” And I said, “Well, how do I know that?” I mean, I’ve never been to the police. It was a Police Department camera, and it was, I think it was, like, 180 or 360 [degrees]. And I said, “Man, I don’t trust that stuff in my office.”

So I get the mistrust. And so now it’s incumbent upon me as an executive. I was the author of the privacy surveillance statute, like how we use technology, to make sure that at least you have people in positions of power and influence to build community trust.

Give us a try. Trust is not something you should give freely. As I’ve told my three kids, trust has to be earned. We have to earn it as members of government in everything that we do. We’re human. So this is ongoing work.

We’re going to put a button in that and get to another pressing topic facing the city: homelessness. And currently the U.S. Supreme Court is weighing a class-action lawsuit about whether to criminalize the unhoused for sleeping in public. What are your thoughts on what that could mean for the city?

From my standpoint, it’s not going to have a significant effect. The reason I say that is we will always lead toward offering shelter first. And I believe that the issue of housing and sheltering so many is solvable, and that we go about it in a very compassionate approach. I don’t want anyone sleeping in a tent and dying in the extreme heat or the extreme cold.

It’s as simple as that. I want to give people permanent, supportive housing, but in the meantime, I may have to put someone in a temporary kind of shelter, whether it’s a tiny home or some kind of congregate shelter, with other types of supportive services. I don’t want someone having to live in those conditions, and I won’t criminalize poverty.

The legal flexibility or restrictions are not going to alter our approach, because I believe in a humane approach. Now, I don’t believe someone has a fundamental right to live right where you’re blocking a person’s wheelchair. Accessibility. As an example. I made that point when first taking office, in looking at the route to the courthouse. All of the sidewalks were cluttered with tents, and someone in a wheelchair literally could not use the sidewalk and was going to be forced to go on the street. To me, that’s a safety issue. But in terms of sheltering people, we will always lead with compassion and with the need to shelter them. That is our Housing First policy that I was a supporter of when I was on the City Council.

Next year, the city will face a nearly $250 million budget deficit. What measures are you considering to close those shortfalls?

Well, I tell everyone it’s my problem, not yours. And I’m pretty darn good at budgeting, whether it’s zero-based budgeting or target-based budgeting. I don’t want to prematurely talk about what we’re doing to address it, but it will be addressed. I’ve asked each department head – who are quite capable, you know – what a certain percentage looks like, 15% or 8%, etc. I put a hiring freeze on jobs. We’re looking at where there’s duplications in departments. My goal is to not reduce in any way essential services of the city – safety as an example, or housing. And so, we’ll present a balanced budget. We have a plan and will unveil the plan at the appropriate time. What we need to understand is why the budget reached almost $8 billion, right? We’ve grown exponentially in our spending. And I think, quite honestly, we can be more efficient in city government. And that’s what we’re going to do. We will unveil our plans toward the end of this summer.

Mayor, before I let you go, in your state-of-the-city address, you alluded to a major development that could take place here in the city. Is an NBA team on their way to return home?

You know, it’s not a huge secret that both Seattle and Las Vegas are the most attractive markets for an NBA team. And, full disclosure, even as soon as last night I had dinner with two people who have both the means and the resources to put this together. And so, yes, there are discussions underway. Hopefully we’ll have some announcements here in the near future, but I am not going to get in front of my skis. But it looks very, very promising here. Very promising.

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