By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
Two high-profile topics filled the agenda as HPAC – the community council for Highland Park, Riverview, and South Delridge – met online this past week: Public safety and public art.
To talk about public safety, HPAC invited a neighbor, City Councilmember Lisa Herbold, who chairs the Public Safety and Human Services Committee, which was back in the spotlight again this week for a proposed cut in the police budget. (We explained her compromise proposal here; the committee agreed the next day to substitute it for the previous version.) “We wanted to hear your thinking” on the big picture, explained HPAC co-chair Kay Kirkpatrick. “How can we make meaningful change, while staying safe?”
Herbold opened by reminding attendees that “public safety” spans police, fire, and the new “Community Safety” division that’s been created, as well as Emergency Management. She detailed the committee’s work overseeing a multitude of components of these departments’ work. That includes staffing – not only did SPD have twice the usual departures last year, she said, so did SFD. Moving the 911 center and Parking Enforcement Officers out of SPD and into Community Safety is a big task ahead. Those moves account for significant parts of the shrinkage of the SPD budget, she pointed out, declaring, “Not a single officer was laid off for budget reductions.” Herbold’s committee also oversees Human Services – which deals with health and homelessness, among other things – and which has some intersection with public safety.
She contended that much of the big-picture public-safety reform discussion has to do with addressing the fact that police have been asked to do too much – and even they will tell you that (she noted, as she has multiple times before, that Southwest Precinct commander Capt. Kevin Grossman has said so).
The first comment/question was from an attendee who said she would like to participate in how policing/public safety is being reimagined – but no chances have been offered. “I keep waiting and waiting. … Who’s had a chance to participate in that?” Herbold acknowledged that “the community engagement piece hasn’t happened” but said there’s community participation, such as a Community Safety hub set up at Youngstown Cultural Arts Center, for example. (We’re following up on that.) Such initiatives are being funded by millions the council has already allocated. She added that the mayor set up a committee to look at parts of the “reimagining”: picture, and they’re supposed to be briefing her committee with monthly status reports “and we haven’t gotten a single one,” so she is meeting with the mayor to find out why.
She was asked about the SPD departures. At that point she acknowledged that some blame morale and feeling that the talk of cutting SPD – last summer’s pledges to halve its budget – indicated a lack of support. Not so, Herbold insisted, expressing bewilderment at why the council’s action was perceived that way. Yes, she said, there was an initial commitment to cutting the budget by 50 percent but “we only cut 20 percent, and (half of that)” was in moving functions to other departments, not eliminating them. “We were never talking about laying off more than 70 officers out of a budgeted 1357. If a conversation about 70 officers results in (more) leaving … I’m sorry about that.”
Regarding the hopes of moving away from armed police officers responding to certain types of calls, she was asked about police assisting SDCI in enforcing abatement orders at problem houses. That’s still happening, she said, while acknowledging she had to call the precinct to be sure it was.
An attendee talked about working downtown and how even pre-pandemic, businesses had to invest so much in security – are the only safe places in our city going to be those that can afford extra security? The attendee advocated for more officers. Herbold said she was opposed to the hiring freeze some councilmembers supported. She insisted she wasn’t trying to “isolate the police department.” She also acknowledged that in terms of reimagining public safety, “we’re trying to build the plane while we’re flying it.” And she says she’s responded to “hundreds of constituents” reiterating that she supports the department. She also suggested her declarations of support for the police don’t get enough media coverage for people to believe she supports them.
HPAC co-chair Kirkpatrick observed that while this difficult conversation continues, “People need to know how they can contribute.” And, she added, people need to be able to deal with real-world safety concerns – and other concerns, like the proliferation of unsanctioned encampments for people experiencing homelessness. Herbold said there are people who can respond to those situations – including added outreach workers that she discussed in a recent newsletter.
After she logged out of the meeting, co-chair Craig Rankin said, “I wish I could have asked her, when #ILL the plane be built?”
And one attendee yearned for a larger conversation – not just concern about, for example, an encampment blocking a sidewalk, but how do we prevent people from winding up on the streets in the first place, how do we get people housed?
Before Herbold’s appearance, public art for the Highland Park Way/Holden traffic-improvements project was the meeting’s first topic:
City rep Kristen Ramirez from SDOT and the Office of Arts and Culture was there to talk about the proposed project. This actually predated the bridge closure – she said this project has been under discussion for more than a year. She gave a primer about 1 percent for art, a program that Seattle has had since 1973. They have $120,000 in funds for art here, while the West Marginal Way project by the Duwamish Tribe Longhouse also has $3,000 for art. They’re thinking of it as something beyond “just bringing art to this intersection”; they have a roster of emerging and Indigenous artists to draw from.
Ramirez explained a three-part concept, starting with “episodic” signage that could change out/rotate.
The signs could even be “breadcrumbs” leading further down the hill and onto West Marginal. “Could be image based, could be text based,” she said.
Part 2 – $50,000 could go to arts and cultural programming at the Duwamish Longhouse.
The 3rd and final part – “Creative Commons,” with programming that helps “reignite” social/cultural life as the pandemic winds down.
In Q&A, the sign idea drew a somewhat-lukewarm reception. Why not a sculpture? someone asked. Ramirez said that so many sculptures are damaged, they’re trying to ‘rethink” the traditional type of public art. Also, $120,000 isn’t enough for one, she added.
More discussion is ahead, needless to say.
ANNOUNCEMENTS: One big one – another free-compost event, April 17th from 9 am until it runs out, in the north lot at South Seattle College (6000 16th SW; WSB sponsor). The last one ran out fast.
NEXT MEETING: HPAC meets fourth Wednesdays, 7 pm, online, most months. Watch hpacws.org for updates.