Representatives from a new coalition called Decriminalize Seattle pressed the City Council in a meeting Wednesday to immediately begin redirecting millions of dollars in funding from the Police Department to community-based solutions, affordable housing and a new approach to public safety.
In a letter, meanwhile, Mayor Jenny Durkan’s top deputy warned the council to hold off on major cuts until more analysis and planning can be done.
The council also heard details about how the city’s 911 system is used, with some members saying they would like to remove Seattle’s 911 dispatchers from Police Department control, as recommended by Decriminalize Seattle.
The types of 911 calls that Seattle police respond to most are reported disturbances, suspicious circumstances, parking issues, public assistance needs and car crashes, accounting for 41% of all calls. Those are mostly noncriminal issues.
The Police Department’s call center already is staffed almost exclusively by civilian dispatchers, rather than sworn officers, and has an annual budget of about $36 million (its dispatchers transfer some calls to the Fire Department).
“We believe 911 dispatch should be removed from SPD control,” partly because armed police responding to calls too often leads to killings of Black people, said Angélica Cházaro, a representative from Decriminalize Seattle invited to present to the council’s budget committee Wednesday. “911 calls should be referred, whenever appropriate, to non-police responders.”
Councilmember Andrew Lewis expressed “very strong support” for the idea, which Councilmember Dan Strauss characterized as a potential “quick win.”
Cházaro described Decriminalize Seattle as a grassroots coalition convened during recent protests over police brutality, saying nearly 45,000 people and more than 300 organizations have endorsed its demands that police funding be reallocated and that arrested protesters be released without charges.
“This opening to speak to you … was created by social movement pressure and has to be accountable to the demands made by that movement,” she said.
The Police Department’s budget is $409 million this year (up 36% over the past five years). Its remaining 2020 budget should be cut by 50% this summer and its 2021 budget also should be halved, Cházaro said.
“The time for reforms has passed,” she said. “It’s clear to us now that more training, more accountability measures (for police officers) are not going to cut it. We need to move away from armed responses to social problems.”
Council members Tammy Morales, Kshama Sawant, Teresa Mosqueda and M. Lorena González have said 50% of the Police Department’s budget should be redirected; they haven’t yet said exactly how they believe that should happen.
Durkan last month proposed about $20 million in Police Department cuts as part of a broader plan to close a $378 million hole that the coronavirus health and economic crisis has ripped in the city’s 2020 budget.
Most of those cuts were identified in response to (or were necessitated by) the pandemic, before the Black Lives Matter protests erupted.
Durkan also asked her staff and the Police Department to prepare models of what steeper cuts would look like. Reducing the Police Department’s annual budget in 2021 by 50% could mean laying off 755 sworn and 281 civilian employees, according to an estimate provided by her office.
In a letter to council members Wednesday, Senior Deputy Mayor Mike Fong said any “blunt efforts” to slash the Police Department’s 2020 budget by $100 million or more “would not serve our communities.” They instead would necessitate immediate layoffs, “leaving (Police Chief Carmen Best) and the Seattle Police Department unable to conduct basic functions,” he said.
In his letter, Fong said the Durkan administration is working on short-term and long-term strategies to diminish the need for police interventions by investing in community-based solutions and public health.
“SPD’s budget can and will be reduced through all of these strategies,” but that work will be complex and take time, he said. Some changes will be included in the 2021 budget that the mayor will propose in September, while others may need to come next year, linked to a new contract with the Seattle Police Officers Guild due to be negotiated soon and potential actions by the state Legislature.
Yet Decriminalize Seattle and many Seattle residents who spoke during the council’s public comment session said the council, which can make changes to Durkan’s 2020 rebalancing plan, should take quick and dramatic action.
“I really, truly do not believe change will happen unless we take away 50%,” commenter Ayan Musse said. “We have to start imagining a world without law enforcement.”
Cházaro mentioned a number of defunding strategies, suggesting Seattle could lay off patrol officers and administrative employees, stop approving overtime pay for cops and cut the Police Department’s training budget, among other options.
Most of the Police Department’s spending is dedicated to employee pay and salaries, with 48% of sworn employees assigned to patrol duties.
Another Decriminalize Seattle representative, Jackie Vaughn, said City Hall should use money cut from the Police Department to scale up community-led solutions and help people who need housing. It should also be used to carry out a participatory budget process this summer, allowing residents to directly help decide how Seattle spends on public safety in 2021, she said.
Mental-health therapists, mediators and social workers could respond to many 911 calls, while existing organizations that work to prevent violence and provide restorative justice could receive much more funding, she said.
Some ideas may encounter resistance from Durkan, though the mayor has expressed interest in sending armed officers to fewer calls and has piloted a Fire Department team that sends social workers to some emergency calls.
Councilmember Lisa Herbold said Durkan, in a recent conversation, expressed skepticism that community-based organizations are ready to respond to and deal with large numbers of 911 calls around the clock.
“It would be irresponsible to make immediate cuts without any conceivable mechanism to stand up alternative models to achieve community safety,” Fong said in his letter Wednesday.
Such organizations can build capacity over time, Cházaro replied, saying the Police Department’s approach isn’t working for many people.
More than half of last year’s 911 calls were noncriminal, though more time is spent on criminal calls; 3% resulted in the call disposition “arrest made.”
Morales and Mosqueda said they would like to know how many calls reporting disturbances, suspicious circumstances, nuisances and thefts are related to homelessness and poverty. Morales said the data, while incomplete, “doesn’t do anything to help me feel better” about the city’s current approach to public safety.
Laying off cops could prove complicated, because union guidelines could require City Hall to retain longtime officers over recent recruits.
“Some of our younger and most diverse officers could be the first cut, defeating the hard work done to recruit officers that reflect and serve their communities,” Fong said, noting that council members have worked with the the mayor in recent years on hiring incentives for cops and recently launched a team of unarmed, civilian Community Service Officers.
Some other ideas have been discussed before. Cházaro said the council could remove police officers from Seattle’s homeless Navigation team, which refers people living in encampments to other options and then clears encampments.
Debate over how to deal with encampments has raged at City Hall for years; The Chief Seattle Club, Mother Nation, Seattle Indian Health Board and United Indians of All Tribes Foundation signed a letter to the mayor Wednesday demanding that police be removed from the Navigation Team.
Durkan has paused officer hiring but that move won’t save much money in 2020 because the Police Department hired more people than expected early this year.
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