After the shootings in the past few days near the Capitol Hill anti-police protest zone, the call went out, paradoxically, for the help of the one thing the protest is most arguing against.
“Our movement should demand and insist that the Seattle Police fully investigate this attack and be held accountable to bring the killer(s) to justice,” said Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant in a statement. One paragraph later she re-upped her demand, however, to “defund” these same police.
It wasn’t just Sawant with the suddenly mixed message. City Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda noted in a Monday meeting that “we want to make sure that firefighters and EMT have access to do their jobs and help those that need it.”
That seems noncontroversial — except how do we think ambulances get access to often volatile crime scenes? Who typically does that work of securing shooting scenes, so that aid workers can move in?
Even the protesters, who in a statement said they took two shooting victims to the hospital because Seattle police and fire were too slow in getting there, seemed to tacitly acknowledge the limits of a “no-cop” zone.
“We as safety teams are peacekeepers, not police,” read the unsigned statement from the CHOP, or Capitol Hill Organized Protest. “We do not want to be homicide detectives, or CSI, or accessories to this murder.”
This is the irony of CHOP, a few-block occupation of Capitol Hill formed in protest of structural and overt racial bias in police enforcement. The protest has a beautiful spirit, by day anyway, of a mass teach-in and self-governing colony seeking to reimagine a city without militarized, domineering police. Its core demands are simple enough to be printed on the street blockades. “1. Defund SPD by 50% Now. 2. Fund Black communities. 3. Free all protesters.”
But now with three shootings in the past three nights in the immediate vicinity, the CHOP has ended up demonstrating the reverse of its no-cop Utopian goal. It turns out we still need those homicide detectives and the CSI and probably much of whatever else was going on in that boarded-up East Precinct.
“We can police ourselves!” a man was still insisting in one of the CHOP’s intersections on Tuesday when I stopped by.
“The hell we can,” a woman responded under her breath. We were listening to the mother of Lorenzo Anderson, the young man who was slain nearby Sunday morning, express her anguish about the delayed medical response during a livestream show broadcast from a sidewalk in the CHOP zone on Converge Media.
So what happens now? With the CHOP no one seems to know. Some protesters I spoke to Tuesday seemed resigned to eventually leaving, while others said they were just as willing to man the barricades as when the zone first went up.
The bitterness at the police, too, is palpable, with legitimate anger at how Chief Carmen Best and some of her underlings have at times peddled false or misleading information to shape perceptions of what’s going on in the area.
But with the police, the takeaway from the last few days ought to be that the city can’t just defund them. There have to be ways to restructure what they do and how they do it — to turn them into “guardians of the public, not warriors seeking to dominate criminals through toughness,” as the former police chief of Camden, New Jersey, put it recently.
But such reforms are likely to end up costing more money, not less. As they ultimately did when Camden scrapped its police and started over to do more community-minded policing.
“As far as the change that has taken place, the number one difference is resources,” the current Camden chief said recently. “Cops count and police matter, so by almost doubling the amount of officers on the street that has given us a much larger footprint to focus on community engagement and creating a dialogue with residents that has been missing for decades in the city.”
Hard to see how any of that squares with “defund the police.”
The alternative — slashing the Seattle police budget back 20 years, from $400 million to $200 million as Sawant and protesters have suggested — has been tried elsewhere before, with horrendous results. The Washington Post detailed Tuesday how Vallejo, California, did this, and it only escalated friction as strapped officers were constantly in “triage mode” and angry citizens would call for help and the cops often wouldn’t come.
The best ideas to soften the Ramboed-up force — such as by embedding social workers or mental-health specialists with patrol officers — are going to cost more as well.
“Restructure the police” admittedly isn’t as pulse-pounding as “cops are obsolete” or “abolish cops now” or any of the other messages in the CHOP. But the CHOP itself has become exhibit A for how much those slogans are a fantasy.
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