Seattle City Council approves historic cuts to police department budget

Aug 10, 2020, 5:31 AM | Updated: 5:50 pm
Seattle council SPD budget...
Seattle protesters in June. (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Seattle City Councilmembers have officially approved legislation enacting sizable cuts to the police department’s budget.

What does it mean when protesters call to defund the police?

Councilmembers approved amendments in the plan in the Budget Committee last week. The committee voted to move the bulk of its proposal forward during its 10 a.m. session, before giving its final approval Monday evening by a 7-1 margin. Councilmember Kshama Sawant was the lone “no” vote, while Debora Juarez — who was not present at Monday’s meetings — abstained. Sawant’s vote against the package was based around her belief that it didn’t go far enough in its reductions to SPD’s funding.

“Today I voted against what is euphemistically called the City Council’s ‘Balancing Package’ to the 2020 budget, because the only balancing that is happening is on the backs of working people, especially in Black and Brown communities,” Sawant said in a news release. “This budget fails working people.”

Pushback against the proposal from the other side of the aisle has come from Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan, Police Chief Carmen Best, police unions and pro-police community members, who have all cited concerns over public safety should the department be forced to reduce its number of sworn officers.

Last month, seven of nine councilmembers pledged support for defunding SPD by 50% in 2020 and reinvesting that money into communities of color as demanded by King County Equity Now and Decriminalize Seattle, which encompass dozens of community groups, non-profits, and other BIPOC-focused organizations.

However, the council recently admitted it would not be able to hit that 50% mark – about $85 million — for 2020, and instead would pass what it could for the 2020 package and focus on getting to that 50% in the 2021 budget, which the council starts work on next month. The council estimates that if enacted annually, the cuts it approved Monday would total 41%.

The highlights of the 2020 package approved by councilmembers Monday include:

  • Eliminating up to 100 sworn officer positions across various teams via layoffs and attrition (including 32 patrol officers), beginning in November 2020
  • Capping command staff pay at $150,000 (not including Chief Best’s salary, which was reduced to $275,000).
  • Ending the Navigation Team (14 of the 100 officers mentioned above)

The package also cuts or reduces a variety of SPD’s specialized units, including the Harbor Patrol Unit, SWAT team, Public Affairs unit, and school resource officers, and cuts $800,000 of SPD’s retention and recruitment budget.

The move to defund (and eliminate) the Navigation Team, and redirect the money to homeless outreach services such as REACH will “dramatically restrict the city’s ability to address unauthorized encampments,” warned Jason Johnson, Interim Director of Seattle’s Human Services Department in a letter to the council last week.

The legislation also invests funding into community-based alternatives to policing, including $10 million to stand up public safety organizations, $4 million for youth-focused safety programs, and $3 million for “participatory budgeting for public safety.”

The cuts also led to following bargaining demands from police unions, according to the mayor’s office:

  • SPOG: Demand to bargain both the decisions and the effects of the decisions of [any of] the City’s proposals.
  • SPMA: Demand to bargain the decision to transfer bargaining unit work out of the bargaining unit; the decision to reduce the number of bargaining unit employees; the decision to reduce or limit any form of wages.
  • SPEOG: Proposal to transfer the parking enforcement unit to SDOT.
  • SPDG: Transferring the 911 Call Center out of SPD.

Last Friday, the federal judge overseeing the city’s ongoing consent decree warned the council to use caution and remember its existing obligations, in an order regarding a separate case last week.

The council acknowledged those obligations in a recently-added amendment, as first reported by SCC Insight’s Kevin Schofield, as well as some additional changes likely to be discussed in Monday’s meeting.

Despite warnings, pleas, and a big push from police supporters over the weekend, the council stayed the course and moved ahead with approving the 2020 plan Monday as a down payment on its pledge to defund SPD by 50% now expected in 2021. Council President Lorena Gonzalez explained the reasoning in a series of Tweets Friday.

Opinion: No more reform — it’s time to rebuild Seattle policing

The goal from councilmembers is a re-imagining of policing, right-sizing what the council feels is an inflated police department and budget that is not necessary and instead finding alternatives to sending armed officers to respond to calls that someone else, such as a social worker, might be better equipped to handle and avoid an unnecessary risk of escalation.

Exactly what this re-tooled version of policing and public safety will look like in practice remains to be seen, and likely won’t come into full view until next year, but the council says it will be a community led effort as has been demanded by Decriminalize Seattle and King County Equity Now, the groups that will taking part in the participatory budget process with the council on the 2021 public safety budget.

The blueprint Decriminalize Seattle has provided as a path forward includes city-funded research done by BIPOC communities to provide, and among other things, “a plan on what health and safety actually means, including (but not limited to) alternatives to policing.”

“Instead of buying bullets, violence and intimidation, we are choosing — the city council is choosing — to invest in peace and restoration in a community that has been ravaged by generations of racism,” Council President Lorena Gonzales said as she explained the vision for future policing in Seattle.

Chief Best has repeatedly urged caution, explaining that she and Durkan support a re-envisioned SPD, but that these changes cannot happen overnight without risking public safety. Last week, Best also released her own vision and accountability website for making such changes.

Gonzalez released a full statement shortly after Monday’s final vote:

Today, Council voted on a rebalanced budget package. This budget charts a course for evaluating community-informed public safety interventions.

We have spent the last 56 days (since June 15, 2020) rebalancing the 2020 budget as a result of the economic crisis related to the COVID-19 pandemic. No one could have anticipated that we would be faced by a global pandemic, an economic crisis and a national racial reckoning that places the responsibility of a path forward squarely at the feet of local leaders. With a lack of unified federal leadership, this growing economic recession means we must do more with much less.

Our overarching goal was to provide support for more affordable housing, continue to build vibrant communities, and to invest in programs that correct intergenerational wrongs. We cannot afford to lose ground from the hard fought wins that have taken years to achieve.

Reducing the budget of the Seattle Police Department is a response to the calls for advocating for racial justice and investments in BIPOC communities.

Our inquest into SPD’s budget revealed 3% of 911 calls result in arrest but 56% of calls involve non-criminal activity. As a City, we cannot look at this data and assume this is a best practice and cost-efficient. What we can do is allow our police to focus on what they are trained to do and fund service providers addressing the more complex issues of housing, substance use disorder, youth violence prevention, affordable healthcare, and more. Funding interventions and casework centered in harm reduction will mean public safety rooted in community and addressing the root causes of why many people utilize 911, rather than funding arrests and incarceration.

The Council has used the summer rebalancing budget process to consider initial cuts, with more budget allocation decisions to be made in the fall during the Council’s regularly-scheduled budget session.

Also releasing a statement was the Council’s Budget Committee Chair Teresa Mosqueda, who spearheaded the early stages of the legislation.

This Council has done something no Seattle City Council has ever done — passed a mid-year budget revision, while working remotely, during overlapping health, homelessness and housing crises. It would have been easy to rubber stamp the Mayor’s proposed budget package, but instead, we rolled up our sleeves and did the hard work,” Mosqueda said.

We identified early on that we would not succumb to an austerity budget that pitted vital programs and services against one another. We knew there would be tough choices, but ultimately we crafted a budget that addresses the economic impacts of the COVID-19 crisis, made new investments in our social safety nets including homelessness prevention and COVID relief for families, made a meaningful down payment following community’s calls to defund SPD, and raised new progressive revenue through the JumpStart Seattle plan.

We came together collectively and put Seattle resident and worker priorities and values forward, crafting a mid-year budget that lifts up anti-austerity in how we’re responding to COVID, caring for our most vulnerable, and our commitment to raise progressive revenue.

I’m proud of the work my Council colleagues and I did this summer, and know we’ll continue the hard work of making sure the City’s budget reflects our shared values in the fall budget cycle, which starts in just a few weeks.

MyNorthwest staff contributed to this report

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Seattle City Council approves historic cuts to police department budget