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SPD Chief: ‘No way we can operate’ under council’s proposed 50% cut

Police Chief Carmen Best, center, speaks at at a news conference, Monday, July 13, 2020, at City Hall in Seattle as Mayor Jenny Durkan, left, and Fire Chief Harold Scoggins, right, look on. Durkan and Best were critical of a plan backed by several city council members that seeks to cut the police department's budget by 50 percent. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan and Police Chief Carmen Best announced their own plan for cuts to Seattle’s police budget over the next year.

Mayor Durkan, Chief Best lay out proposal for ‘reenvisioning’ of SPD’s budget

Durkan and Best also vowed to oppose cuts from the city council they believe would “compromise SPD’s ability to provide service and safety to the residents and businesses of Seattle.” Chief Best has previously referred to the 50% budget cuts proposed by the council as “reckless.”

“It is completely reckless,” Best reiterated Tuesday on KIRO Radio’s Gee & Ursula Show. “And there’s no way that we can operate a police department and we can take care of public safety — we were already below normal staffing levels, and to decimate the department and want us to lay off that mass number of officers, it absolutely makes no sense.”

If the SPD were to lose 50% of its budget this year, and again next year, Best says there would be layoffs.

“Most of our budget is personnel costs — about 80-85% — so there really isn’t a lot of extra there. I mean, a cut like that will mean that we have to lay off people. And so that is something, particularly with this COVID-19 environment, where we’ve already had a strained budget. We were already … cutting out any fat, so to speak, to make sure that we could operate.”

Best also said she hasn’t heard a plan from the council as to how they would take over the functions those officers are performing.

“We have been under budget constraints and working really hard to minimize the impact of the budget because with COVID-19, many of the businesses are closed, [there’s] a lot of expenses for the city,” Best said. “So we knew we were going to have to tighten our belt already, and … we’re in the process of doing that.”

“However, this latest event with the council wanting to slice 50% of the budget, just lop it off without any real consideration for what that means for public safety interests, it has truly been a real challenge,” she added.

Right now, SPD is facing cuts of $20 million each year over the course of two years, and examining ways to make that work to accommodate the requests that have been made for a reduced budget.

“It was going to happen, but it was never to the extreme measure that the City Council is suggesting,” she said.

Former director of 911 center says ‘start cutting fat’ from SPD budget

Cutting back on overtime is one of the first things being examined, Best added.

“As you know, every year we do emphasis patrols and extra events, and so we were looking at not doing as many of those, trying to minimize those impacts,” she said. “Every time we do, of course, we hear from community members that they want the extra emphasis. But we were looking at how to minimize … the emphasis patrols, how to realign some of the folks who don’t have regular shift schedules so that we can better augment patrol responses, looking at taking more calls online and handling them that way, and anything that we could do to minimize the need for officers in the field so that we could do our part in containing the Seattle budget.”

“That said, it certainly didn’t mean a 50% cut in our staffing,” she added.

The Chief says the council did not ask for her opinion or feedback as to what cuts should be made to the police budget.

“If we had been invited to the conversation, we could have talked about some of the options that we were thinking that might be possible, but we were never asked,” she said. “I was never asked my opinion or thoughts on it at all.”

Best just wants to make sure there are enough officers to provide public safety to the city of Seattle. There are roughly 1,400 sworn officers for a city of 750,000, and cutting the number of officers in half would be “detrimental,” Best said, and a hole she does not believe Seattle would ever recover from.

Additionally, Best pointed out that the CHOP in Capitol Hill provided a glimpse at what happens when police aren’t allowed to do their job effectively.

“It became such a lawless environment, and I actually fear that that will happen in the city of Seattle if we reduce police resources by half,” she said.

Removing the bad cops

While not everyone agrees on defunding the police, Gee said he thinks everyone can agree that we all want to cut out bad police officers.

“Nobody wants to see the bad cops go more than good cops because every time something happen, … we’re all painted with that same brush,” Best said. “So we want to make sure that we have the best officers available working for us, because nobody, like I said, no one wants to see the bad cops go more than good cops who are out there working hard every day.”

To rid the agency of these bad officers, what can be done to increase accountability?

“Believe it or not, the Seattle Police Department has the most accountability in place of any agency I’ve heard of in the country,” Best said, citing the Office of Police Accountability, the Office of the Inspector General, and the Community Police Commission as accountability partners. These three groups examine SPD polices, procedures, practices, and review all uses of force.

“But I do recognize that when something happens, people want immediate action, and often there’s a process,” Best said. “… And so that can be kind of frustrating too, but we have to go through the policies, and procedures, and practices in place.”

While it takes time, the accountability is there, she said.

Changing the arbitration process

Former officers, and some current officers, have suggested it may be time to get rid of arbitration. Best acknowledged that the system may need reform, but considers due process to be important.

“I still believe that there’s a place for due process for people. We want to make sure they have the ability, as anybody would, to have due process,” she said. “That said, it could become quite difficult when you’re trying to terminate an employee for wrong behavior.”

The chief noted that you can’t fire people arbitrarily, and there needs to be some sense of fairness in what happens, in the accusations and how they are reviewed.

Regaining community trust

The underlying issue seems to be re-building trust between police and the communities they serve, nationally and locally. So how will the SPD regain the trust of the community moving forward?

“We want to continue on the relationship building,” Best said. “Reaching out to community groups, … in a COVID-19 environment it’s difficult to have those large community meetings, so we’re trying to find ways that we can do that virtually, through live streaming and through other technologies, and just engaging with the public. I mean, that’s really what it takes because officers are just people, they’re just people like everyone else.”

Any opportunity to meet with people, talk to them, and get to know them is important, she said.

“And when things happen, we need to have a real conversation about what it means, and what we’re doing, and continue, on shows like this, to explain what procedures are, what processes are, and how we can have opportunities to engage.”

Listen to the Gee and Ursula Show weekday mornings from 9 a.m. – 12 p.m. on KIRO Radio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

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