By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
One week ago, political war broke out over the concept of “defunding” the Seattle Police Department.
Days earlier, after a discussion with advocates, seven of the City Council‘s nine members voiced support for the idea of halving the SPD budget. No specific legislation was (or is) proposed, yet. But a week ago Friday, Mayor Jenny Durkan‘s office went public with a letter from Police Chief Carmen Best saying a 50 percent budget cut for her department would, among other things, require drastic action, perhaps closing the Southwest Precinct.
The mayor and chief followed up with a Monday media briefing during which they offered a counterproposal of cuts – for next year.
Two days later, the council discussed “defunding” again while meeting as the Select Budget Committee. With some confusion over what has and hasn’t happened so far, we’re taking a look at where the discussion stands and what happens next – not just via that meeting itself, but via a conversation Friday afternoon with West Seattle/South Park Councilmember Lisa Herbold, who chairs the council’s Public Safety Committee and is a “defunding” supporter.
First – to be clear, there has been no vote on “defunding” yet, not for this year, not for next year. The former is the focus right now, as the council seeks to “rebalance” the current budget in the face of huge revenue losses caused by the pandemic. Here’s video from their nearly-four-hour budget meeting on Wednesday afternoon:
The “rebalancing” discussion starts 33 minutes in. To be specific, this phase was “issue identification” – and the SPD budget was a major part of the discussion. Just short of 2 hours into the meeting, the council heard a presentation from the two coalitions leading the call for defunding, Decriminalize Seattle and King County Equity Now. Here is the document from their presentation:
From their slides:
The work to defund SPD and create true public safety and health will happen in phases. Phase one – the initial cuts and reinvestments listed below – will be facilitated by the 2020 budget rebalancing process the city of Seattle will complete by the first week of August 2020. This phase will be followed by deeper cuts to SPD’s budget to come in the 2021 budget cycle, coupled with a participatory budgeting process that will allow the community to determine the direction of deeper investments to generate true public safety and health.
Here’s what the coalitions suggest for cuts:
Cuts could come from many places in SPD’s bloated budget, and should include the following actions:
• Freeze hiring. Any planned hiring, including for individuals in the training pipeline, should be cancelled.
• Eliminate funds for recruitment and retention, including bonuses for new hires.
• Remove the Office of Collaborative Policing, including Navigation Team. While some programs of this office, along with their administrative infrastructure, should be eliminated altogether, others could be moved to a civilian-controlled city agency.
o Eliminate: Navigation Team, Community Outreach Administration
• Transfer out of SPD control: Crisis Intervention Response, Community Service Officers
• Eliminate spending on new equipment
• Eliminate Data-driven policing
• Eliminate spending on North Precinct Capital Project
• Eliminate Professional Services -Including:
§ Photo Enforcement
§ Sworn Hiring in HR
§ Recruitment and Retention
§ Community Outreach
§ Implicit Bias Training
• Cut SPD’s spending on Homeland Security (a misnamed unit that is mostly assigned to large events like Bumbershoot)
• Eliminate SWAT Team funding
• End contracts with private firms that defend SPD and the City against police misconduct lawsuits
• Eliminate SPD’s travel and training budget
• End overtime pay, including for Emphasis Patrols
• Reduce patrol staffing, with corresponding reduction in administrative staffing
• Transfer 911 dispatch out of Seattle Police Department to civilian control.
• Transfer traffic/parking enforcement out of SPD control.
• Transfer Office of Police Accountability out of SPD control.
• Transfer Office of Emergency Management out of SPD control.
• Reduce administrative costs in line with the above cuts, including corresponding cuts to the office of the Chief of Police, Leadership and Administration, and Administrative Operations.
Again, that’s what the community coalitions advocating for halving the SPD budget say they want to see. The mayor and chief’s proposals for next year are here, for comparison.
So the big question is, what will the council propose – and pass? 2021 changes will be discussed later in the year – but decisions about this year will be made over the next two weeks, with a final vote on a “rebalanced” budget Monday, August 2nd. We talked with Councilmember Herbold by phone on Friday afternoon. She told us that Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda, the citywide rep who is the current budget chair, has asked them to work through other parts of the budget first so they have a little more time to work out specifics on the police budget.
What they’ve done so far, she stressed, is discuss a “menu of options … high-level concepts.” (See page 335 in last Wednesday’s agenda packet.) The concepts getting the most traction for starters include “reducing the types of calls that 911 has officers respond to,” and increase the responses that would get a Health One type of dispatch (the Fire
Department’s groundbreaking unit). Then there’s the much-discussed concept of moving 911 dispatch out of SPD, and “civilianizing some responses as well as dispatch itself.” Other changes discussed so far: Remove SPD from the Navigation Team that deals with homelessness, and remove “resource officers” from Seattle Public Schools, which has said it no longer wants police based on campus. (In West Seattle, Denny International Middle School has had a resource officer.)
But does that all add up to the 50 percent cut that the coalitions have been insisting on, that a majority of councilmembers have voiced support for? “One of the things we found out Wednesday is that we thought we were working with more,” Herbold noted – SPD has burned through tens of millions in overtime with the year a little more than half over. Bottom line, as of our conversation Friday, Herbold said, “I don’t know what I’m going to be proposing yet.”
Lack of specifics aside, she WILL be proposing cuts. And that is a 180 from her re-election campaign a year ago, when she touted how the SPD budget had increased a third – from $300 million to $400 million – during her first term, as well as other SPD support such as hiring bonuses.
So, we asked, how does she explain the turnaround?
Herbold said she’s always been a “public safety advocate,” going back to her days as “a community organizr in low-income communities of color.” After her city career began, as an assistant to City Councilmember Nick Licata, she worked on SPD budget issues when he was Public Safety chair, including increasing the number of officers, “the first increase since the ’70s.” And more recently, after becoming a councilmember, she heard the pleas of neighborhoods including South Park and South Delridge, and advocated for “growing the Police Department.”
But now, she says, she’s “hearing loud and clear that more officers doesn’t necessarily mean more public safety.” Herbold says she’s been “doing a lot of reading, researching, and listening,” including the “national dialogue about the size of police departments … as PDs’ sizes have increased, the closure rates of cases hasn’t increased, making me think more about how to really deliver better public-safety outcomes.” She pointed to a recent quote we published from new Southwest Precinct commander Capt.Kevin Grossman (in our report on last week’s Fauntleroy Community Association meeting), in which he acknowledged that some 911 calls would likely be better handled by other types of professionals. She also noted that an analysis of 911 calls she had requested showed that half were “non-criminal” – so she contends it’s actually “supporting policing by allowing them to focus the work they do” on where they’re truly needed.
And though the chief’s letter a week ago stirred up a lot of alarm, Herbold believes the proposals made by the mayor and chief have “a lot of alignment” with the “defunding” advocates’ goals. (She has made it clear, though, that she would not support closing the Southwest Precinct.) There’s a major difference: The council wants to take action now and start the transformation work, while the mayor and chief want to start it with the 2021 budget. What’s the rush? For one, Herbold says, some of the potential actions might require bargaining that needs to beegin, and overall, she adds, “by voting on some of this work now, we are making the commitment and allowing ourselves to start the process.”
So who’s going to do the work that’s transferred out of SPD? Herbold says she has requested “a mapping exercise to identify the community-based organizations” that could be involved. She cites the civilian victim advocates who already deploy with SPD in some situations, for example.
But will any of this really be achievable on the near-immediate timeline that is being discussed? “We are looking at whether we could scale reductions in SPD’s budget over the course of four months … on a month-by-month basis,” Herbold replied. “It’s very ambitious to think about doing that but I’ve confirmed via council central staff that it’s possible via provisos … if we were, for example, to cut $30 million, it wouldn’t all be immediate, it would be scaled.”
Speaking of cuts, what about her refutation to the chief’s interpretation that cutting the force would mean losing a lot of its officers of color, under “last hired/first fired”? While Herbold had said the chief could instead opt for “out-of-order” job cuts to preserve some diversity, she says that has been misinterpreted as a suggestion that the chief just fire white officers. Instead, she suggests the chief could use “out of order” as a tool to, for example, cut officers with the biggest records of disciplinary problems. And she contends that a 50 percent budget cut would not require cutting 50 percent of the officers.
Also misinterpreted: The motivation for “defunding.” Herbold says, “We’re not throwing up our hands and saying we don’t care about issues we’ve asked police to deal with, we’re just looking at whether the growth of policing has best served public-safety outcomes. There’s a false narrative that we don’t care about public safety.”
WHAT’S NEXT: The council meets again Wednesday and Thursday as the Select Budget Committee. The agenda’s not out yet, nor are the documents with which councilmembers will propose specific changes/cuts. You can watch for the agenda here (it will also explain how to sign up to comment during the meetings, which continue to be held via teleconferencing).