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Opinion: Cuts are coming to Seattle’s police budget, with or without Mayor Durkan

Adhesive notes are shown after they were left on the doors of Seattle Police Headquarters. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

On Monday, Mayor Jenny Durkan and Chief Carmen Best unveiled their plan for what they claim is a “reenvisioning” of the Seattle Police Department, while emphatically decrying city council’s proposal to cut 50% of the department’s funding. What that plan really represents, though, is little more than a series of smokescreens that carefully avoid any true, systemic change.

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Durkan’s plan would move roughly $76 million services out of SPD’s budget, and spread a handful of minor responsibilities across different city departments. That includes moving $13.7 million in civilian parking enforcement funding to SDOT, and $32 million to have the city’s 911 call center operate outside of police control.

In terms of actual cuts, SPD’s only really losing about $20.5 million of its funding, most of which will go to a freeze on hiring new officers. The sum total is a shell game that has the department sacrificing little, while claiming it’s somehow meeting the demands of protesters.

That all being said, let’s break down some of the more questionable claims made by Mayor Durkan and Chief Best in support of this so-called reform.

Durkan: “This new approach to community safety requires deep community engagement and thoughtful analysis. It cannot be accomplished by abolishing police or by a blunt cut of 50% with no alternative plan.”

The idea that somehow the council and community allegedly have “no alternative plan” for how they will address a 50% cut was brought up numerous times in Monday’s press conference. Those claims painted a picture of a council prepared to lop of half of SPD’s budget and let the department sort out the rest, which is demonstrably not the plan.

“I think the word ‘plan’ is rather loose here,” Best claimed last week. “They haven’t got a plan. All they have shown us that they want to reduce the budget by 50%. I haven’t seen any real planning in that.”

In reality, there’s already been quite a bit of planning, with more on the way. Last week, councilmembers were presented with a joint proposal from Decriminalize Seattle and King County Equity Now, which specifically laid out a roadmap for how sweeping, targeted cuts can be made to the police department. That includes cutting SPD’s recruitment budget, the Navigation Team, the public relations budget, and more. Additionally, any reduction in officers would prioritize those with the highest numbers of complaints filed against them.

It goes on to call for a reappropriation of those funds to mental health and housing programs, as well as a “community-led research process to give community members the time and space to imagine life beyond policing.”

Councilmembers have also pointed out that they’re not looking to make “blunt” immediate cuts, and instead want to ensure they’re doing the proper legwork and research before any major decisions are made.

“Obviously it’s going to be a work in progress,” Councilmember Kshama Sawant said last week. “It’s unreasonable to bring the point forward that a system needs to be in place immediately or not at all.”

“[It’s] a false narrative to say that these approaches will not work because they are not ready today,” Councilmember Dan Strauss agreed. “The worst thing we can do is give organizations the responsibility of responding without giving then the time they need to be successful.”

To say that there’s no plan from councilmembers and community organizations is entirely untrue. It’s merely a plan Best and Durkan don’t approve of.

Best: “The real tragedy … is that we will lose 1,100 [SPD] employees. That’s 50% of our total workforce because most of our budget is made up of our personnel costs.”

Chief Best has repeatedly emphasized that with less funding, the department will be forced to employ fewer officers. Strictly speaking, that’s true, but it doesn’t change the fact that SPD’s budget is overrun with bloated salaries.

According to Open the Books data, 119 of the top 200 city salaries are police officers, with the department boasting over 1,300 employees making six figures annually. A total of 20 SPD employees out-earned Chief Best’s $289,420 salary in 2019.

Some of those top-end salaries include a patrol officer making over $414,000, a sergeant pulling in over $360,000, and another officer making over $332,000. The department also funds 102 six-figure pensions, including at least four retirees making over $184,000.

SPD’s six-figure salaries alone accounted for $237 million in taxpayer dollars in 2019. A good portion of that went to overtime, which the department regularly exceeds its yearly allotment of.

Suffice it say, if we’re looking for places to target cuts within the department (especially in the midst of massive budget shortfall), it’s not hard to find them here.

Durkan: “Chief Best and I believe we can build a new model for community safety in Seattle by reimagining our approach to policing and investing deeply in community.”

Very little about Durkan and Best’s proposal reimagines much of anything, nor invests in programs that provide alternative modes of policing.

In the midst of ongoing police violence largely targeting communities of color — both in Seattle and across the country — ask yourself: Will moving civilian parking enforcement to SDOT solve that problem?

The proposal to move 911 services entirely into civilian control is the only part of Durkan’s plan that really represents any sort of change, but she hedges even that by saying that she still wants to “determine if new emergency responses are necessary.”

Meanwhile at the council level, work is already being done to execute a similar outcome, but in a much more meaningful way. A recently-proposed bill from Councilmember Andrew Lewis would accomplish the goal of making 911 services a community-led operation, while establishing and fully funding first-responder assistance for mental health and substance addiction emergencies.

His proposal is modeled off a successful 31-year-old program in Eugene, Oregon, known as CAHOOTS. CAHOOTS responds to roughly 20% of all 911 calls in Eugene, totaling 24,000 calls in 2019 alone, and requiring police assistance just a handful of times. According to the program’s own estimates, it has saved the city $8.5 million in policing costs since it was enacted, and $14 million in emergency medical response money.

While Durkan and Best claim that reform at such a fundamental level could leave officers unable to respond to emergencies, the current system in Seattle isn’t exactly perfect itself. Speaking in favor of King County Equity Now’s defunding roadmap to councilmembers last week, UW associate professor Angela Chazaro pointed out that the average response time for police in the current 911 dispatch system sits around 15 minutes, and that “people can sometimes wait for hours” in lesser-served communities of color.

“It’s not like having a 24-hour SPD response has actually led to the community safety that we need,” she noted.

To summarize: While Durkan is vowing to maybe think about changing how the city responds to 911 calls sometime down the road, city council is actually laying out a plan to fix an immediate problem, using a successful existing program as a guide.

Best: “SPD is absolutely committed to transforming the department and has already started the process.”

SPD has actively resisted nearly every attempt at meaningful change called for by members of the community. It has opposed a ban on tear gas and other crowd control weapons, frequently spun deceptive narratives in the press, and faces allegations of violence from dozens of protesters.

A recently-filed lawsuit details a series of claims from demonstrators. One tells the story of brushing against a police officer passing him on a bicycle, before the officer “jumped on (him) and placed his arm around his neck” to arrest him for obstruction. Another describes suffering nerve and muscle damage after being hit by a police projectile. These stories represent just a fraction of the questionable behavior we’ve seen from officers in recent weeks.

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Meanwhile, the overarching message from Chief Best is that her department doesn’t need to be fixed.

“We have done so much of what has been called for nationally — we’re already there in Seattle,” she said Monday. “(We) are one of the best-trained departments in the country.”

Here she’s likely referring to a federal consent decree imposed in 2012, which did lead to a reduction in use of force by police officers over the last eight years. Even so, nearly a decade of reforms designed to train officers in deescalation evidently did little to motivate them not to regularly fire tear gas and rubber bullets at protesters.

If the last few weeks of protests have demonstrated anything, it’s that SPD is very clearly not “already there.” And if we’re actually going to get to a point where improvements are made, it’d serve us well to have our police chief admit that real changes need to be made in the first place.

Cuts are coming

When asked what she will do if councilmembers eventually approve a plan to cut SPD’s budget in half, Mayor Durkan vowed to veto any such bill. But with a 7-2 veto-proof majority in favor of the measure, there will likely be very little her office can do to stop it from moving forward.

It seems likely that these cuts will eventually happen, with or without Durkan and Best’s rubber stamp. Thousands have spoken out in favor of an historic reshaping of Seattle’s police department, and a majority of city councilmembers have expressed a willingness to realize that goal. The only question that remains is what side of history our mayor and police chief will choose to reside on.

Questions, comments, or feedback? Follow Nick Bowman on Twitter at @NickNorthwest to weigh in, or reach him by email at [email protected]

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