A year later, more questions than answers over Seattle council’s stance on defunding SPD

May 6, 2021, 9:34 AM | Updated: May 7, 2021, 9:22 am
CHOP, Defunding SPD...
A sign in front of the Seattle Police Department's East Precinct building in the CHOP last summer. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
(AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

Following the death of George Floyd, a series of protests, and several well-documented clashes between police and demonstrators in Seattle, seven of nine Seattle City Councilmembers had stated their support for defunding SPD by as much as 50%.

A handful backed off that stance in the months to follow, although it’s been unclear to what extent, or even which councilmembers still stand behind that position. After reaching out to all nine councilmembers for some clarity, we were still left with more questions than answers.

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The full list of seven councilmembers who originally supported a 50% defund last July included: Lorena Gonzalez, Teresa Mosqueda, Lisa Herbold, Kshama Sawant, Tammy Morales, Andrew Lewis, and Dan Strauss. Debora Juarez and Alex Pedersen were the two holdouts, with the former clarifying why she opposed defunding in November of 2020.

We emailed all nine councilmembers directly, as well the council’s communications director and deputy-director, to coordinate responses from each legislator’s office, asking:

  • Do you currently support defunding the Seattle Police Department by 50%, and why or why not?
  • What do you see as the biggest priorities for reforming the Seattle Police Department in the near-term?
  • What do you see as the biggest priorities for reform long-term?

District 1’s Lisa Herbold and District 4’s Alex Pedersen were the only two to offer answers to those questions.

Teresa Mosqueda’s staff indicated that she was out of the office the week we first reached out. After reaching out again the following week, we were told that she had “a ton of committee meetings” related to the American Rescue Plan, and that she would be unable to offer a response.

Dan Strauss’s office initially indicated that he planned to offer a response, but later “decided to pass,” noting that he “does not sit on the Public Safety & Human Services Committee and is closely following the work of the committee and the leadership of the Chair.”

No other councilmember responded — either to offer answers to our questions, or to provide clarification as to whether they were formally declining to comment.

Lisa Herbold

Councilmember Herbold — who chairs the council’s Public Safety Committee — explained that while she had previously supported a large-scale defunding of SPD, her position has since evolved. She answered with the following:

In May of last year I said I’d make a proposal to reduce the remaining Sept-Dec SPD by 50%. I did so, and I found out very quickly why we could not make that size of a cut. At the start, my proposal largely relied on overtime budget reductions that it turned out SPD had already largely spent.

I’ve seen the exit interviews where officers say that it was the Council’s deliberations about budget cuts that led them to leave the department. But the majority of Councilmembers never seriously contemplated any more than the 70 layoffs proposed. And to date, there hasn’t actually been a single budget-related lay off. Plus, remember, the majority of Councilmembers voted in the fall *against* a 2021 hiring freeze. For my part, I voted against a 2021 hiring freeze because, until we had more crisis response alternatives in place, I was not interested in pursuing a sworn officer reduction any greater than those 70 layoffs.

As relates specifically to those crisis response alternatives, here are some additional updates:

  1. These dollars will be out the door in June/July.
  2. Health Two expanded on schedule and will have a 2nd expansion in August.

And as we heard in my committee [on April 27] we’re expecting a final report in June that should give us a sense of whether it’s possible to further reduce the responsibilities of sworn officers. As you likely saw reported this week, there are a lot of salary savings anticipated for 2021 ($13 million projections) in the SPD budget as a result of officers continuing to leave the department.

Alex Pedersen

Councilmember Pedersen reiterated his opposition to a 50% defund, stating:

After studying this challenging issue, I have not pledged to defund our Seattle Police Department by 50%. After the tragedy of George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police, I re-examined the police budget, reviewed the police union contract, and conferred with several faith, education, and business leaders in Seattle’s historic Black community who shared their concerns that the 50% figure seemed arbitrary, hasty, and impractical with no effective or thoughtful alternatives. 

Many I spoke with agreed, however, that the disproportionately negative impacts for historically marginalized communities need to end. From the initial conversations and research, it became clear the strongest path to justice, reform, and a more efficient police budget was to revamp the unjust, inflexible, and expensive police union contract.

In addition, with Seattle having implemented some important reforms, I recognized we needed stronger policies at the State and federal levels, so I supported several State bills including Senate Bill 5134 and I asked Council to adopt a Resolution supporting the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act which would implement reforms across the nation, including the end of Qualified Immunity for police.

Any additional cuts to our department beyond the approximately 20% already cut would be ill-advised at this point, considering the disturbing increase in 9-1-1 response times and the increase in the number of officers permanently leaving our city’s police department.

Pedersen’s short-term priorities for reforming policing in Seattle read as follows:

  • Revamping the unjust, inflexible, and expensive police union contract which expired several months ago.
  • Standing up effective alternatives to certain components of traditional policing, such as deploying mental health professionals to certain mental health crises.
  • Expanding the gains made to address the Federal Consent Decree, recognizing that we will still have a police force and what remains can be better with the relatively new accountability oversight infrastructure: Community Police Commission, Office of Police Accountability, and Office of Inspector General.
  • Hiring highly qualified new officers from diverse backgrounds committed to reformed and effective crime prevention.

In the long-term:

  • Convince our legislators in Olympia to revive and pass Washington State Senate Bill 5134 next year because it would have successfully removed arbitration procedures that currently enable bad cops to dodge discipline, but this strong reform bill was eclipsed earlier this year by a weaker bill.
  • Convince our U.S. Senators to adopt the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act to end qualified immunity and solidify reforms across the nation.

Last December, Seattle City Council and the mayor’s office came to an agreement on a package of cuts to SPD totaling roughly 17% in 2021. While a 50% cut proposed at the time by Kshama Sawant failed to garner support among her colleagues, it’s unclear at this time where most now stand beyond what we can glean from campaign websites for Teresa Mosqueda and Lorena Gonzalez.

Watchdog group received over 19,000 complaints against SPD in 2020

Mosqueda — who’s running for reelection to her at-large seat — outlines the broad strokes of her positions on policing at this link, with a focus on employing social workers and health professionals to respond to mental health crises.

Gonzalez’s website for her mayoral campaign provides fewer details, simply stating that she envisions “a Seattle where public safety is completely reimagined: [where] policing is demilitarized and held accountable to the public.”

Neither overtly mention specific goals for budget cuts or defunding, while discussions over SPD’s 2022 budget have yet to begin in earnest.

Should any councilmembers provide responses in the weeks to follow, we will add them to this article.

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A year later, more questions than answers over Seattle council’s stance on defunding SPD