The City Council took votes Monday to rebalance Seattle’s battered 2020 budget and start reducing the size and scope of the Police Department. It also promised to make more dramatic changes to public safety services next year.
Budget amendments passed by the council are intended to shrink the force by up to 100 officers through layoffs and attrition this year; dismantle a team that removes some homeless encampments; and cut the wages of Police Department command staff between September and December, among other actions.
Police Chief Carmen Best may see her pay trimmed, though not as much as initially planned. Facing criticism for targeting Best, with the chief’s lawyer mentioning Best broke ground as the first Black woman to lead the Police Department, council members decided she should still make about $23,000 per month.
Mayor Jenny Durkan and Best opposed some of Monday’s moves, asking the council to hold off on changes they said would be hard to carry out quickly. The Seattle Police Officers Guild (SPOG) campaigned against layoffs, collecting petition signatures from people across the country and rallying Sunday.
But Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda described Monday’s amendments as first steps toward achieving the demands by many Black Lives Matter protesters that Seattle defund the Police Department by 50% to invest in community programs. Since May, large crowds have repeatedly taken to the streets and advocates have put pressure on the council to rethink public safety.
“It will take time to get there but we are acting with urgency today,” Mosqueda said before voting in a remote meeting. “What’s important about today is that we haven’t just said, ‘No.’ … We are walking with community.”
Only Councilmember Kshama Sawant voted against what she called an “austerity package.” She said the police reductions were too modest and noted the budget was balanced partly by cutting nonpolice projects and services.
The Police Department reductions passed Monday represent only about $3 million in 2020 savings; the department was allocated $409 million this year — more than the city spends annual on parks and social services.
Seven council members agreed last month with the coalitions Decriminalize Seattle and King County Equity Now that the police budget should be slashed by 50%, Sawant recalled, accusing her colleagues of backtracking.
The coalitions sounded a more positive note.
“Today, City Council inched us towards a safer future — a future where instead of using our limited taxpayer resources … salaries for police officers, we allocate those funds towards data-driven, community-based solutions that we know prevent harm — not merely respond to it,” Decriminalize Seattle and King County Equity Now said in a statement, calling for investments in shelters, housing, youth programs and mental health services.
“While there is still much to do, we encourage the Council, the Mayor and Chief Best to endorse the overwhelmingly supported process underway towards true public safety for all Seattle residents,” the coalitions added.
Mosqueda said Monday’s police reductions could save more than $10 million next year and touted a resolution that passed unanimously Monday. The resolution says the council intends to create a new Department of Public Safety and transfer the city’s 911 dispatch, emergency management, harbor patrol and parking enforcement units out of the Police Department.
Those changes, some of which Durkan previously announced she wanted to advance in 2021, along with some other potential reductions, could take about $170 million away from the Police Department next year, Mosqueda said.
She and other council members said Seattle has asked armed cops to deal with circumstances that social workers and community organizations are better suited for, noting more than half of 911 calls involve noncriminal issues.
“We as a council and the mayor’s office are in a really unique position to seize the moment in this city and in this country,” Councilmember Lisa Herbold said.
The council is directing $17 million, mostly borrowed from the city’s construction and inspections department, for community-led budget research and to bolster community organizations that do public safety work. Some organizations that have pushed for police defunding could receive support.
Like council members, Durkan has vowed to reimagine how Seattle delivers public safety. But leading up to Monday, the mayor opposed immediate officer layoffs and criticized the council for scrapping the city’s Navigation Team, which provides outreach at and removes large homeless encampments.
“Council has refused to engage in a collaborative process … to develop a budget and policies that respond to community needs while accounting for … the significant labor and legal implications involved in transforming the Seattle Police Department,” Durkan spokeswoman Kelsey Nyland said.
The Downtown Seattle Association slammed the council’s policing moves.
“The council moved with speed and pettiness rather than with precision and thoughtfulness,” the association said in a statement. “Decisions critical to public safety require stating the desired results and working with the community to figure out how to get there. This council focused largely on an abstract pledge.”
Monday’s votes mostly wrapped up weeks of midyear budget deliberations by the council in the midst of an economic crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and during mass protests over police killings of Black people.
But the work will continue Wednesday, when council members are expected to clash with Durkan over COVID-19 relief spending, and this fall, when they and Durkan will hash out the city’s 2021 budget.
Though Monday’s rebalanced budget should close a 2020 gap of about $300 million, updated revenue projections released by the mayor Monday extended that gap by $26 million. Where that money will come from is not yet clear.
Durkan recently vetoed the council’s plan to spend $86 million in emergency reserves on COVID-19 relief and replenish the funds with proceeds from a new tax on large corporations. The council is likely to override her veto.
In rebalancing the 2020 budget, the council mostly accepted solutions proposed in June by the mayor, whose package included federal and state assistance, emergency reserves, a hiring freeze and cuts or delays to projects and services (such as postponing progress on the First Avenue streetcar line).
Council members made some minor changes outside the Police Department. For example, they added support for a beach restoration project at Rainier Beach and restored support for sidewalks near Magnuson Park.
The council’s police amendments will withhold money from Best’s patrol budget and ask her to adjust by laying off some officers at large, laying off some from speciality units (such as SWAT, schools, horse patrol, public affairs and community outreach) and leaving some positions vacant when cops resign. The chief decides how to allocate her department’s resources.
Council members chose to withhold the money rather than cut it right away in case the measures can’t be completed this year. SPOG already has demanded to bargain over a request by the council that Best target cops with multiple sustained misconduct complaints for pink slips rather laying off by reverse seniority.
Amendments also will cut money for Police Department travel, training and recruitment and will transfer victim services out of the department. Durkan has warned certain changes could hamper the city’s compliance with a 2012 court agreement to curb the excessive use of force and biased policing.
Councilmember Dan Strauss reassured Seattle residents he believes the Police Department will continue to respond to all 911 calls in a timely manner as the city scales up alternative approaches. When that transition is done, he said, residents should receive quicker, more appropriate responses.
Councilmember Alex Pedersen added language to Monday’s package asking the Police Department to report back on how the layoffs end up impacting the Police Department’s response times and ability to address crime.
“I believe adjustments can be made so response times do not get worse,” and data will show “whether we’re achieving the outcomes we want,” he said.
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