Council and Mayor escalate war of words over SPD budget, while positions begin to converge

This morning both the City Council and Mayor Durkan picked up a microphone to continue their conflict over potential changes to the budget for the Seattle Police Department. And yet, when one looks past the rhetoric, their positions are not that far apart — with one glaring exception.

Mayor Jenny Durkan, flanked by SPD Chief Carmen Best and SFD Chief Harold Skoggins, discussing potential changes to SPD’s budget in 2020 and 2021.

When it comes to the 2021 budget, which is theoretical until the Mayor proposes it in late September, both sides are working from largely the same underlying principles and seem to be converging on similar ideas. The core “problem statement” to which both sides adhere is that SPD currently responds to a variety of situations that could be handled better by people trained in other fields, but rather than create appropriate resources to handle those responses the default has been to give the task to the police. Both the Mayor and the Council are saying that they want to revisit those (often implicit) decisions, and are prepared to unwind them where appropriate. This morning in a press conference, Durkan and SPD Chief Carmen Best offered a starting point for next year’s budget: moving the 911 call center, parking enforcement, the Office of Emergency Management, and the Office of Police Accountability out of SPD into other city departments. That would reduce SPD’s budget by about $56 million, according to the city. In addition, Durkan and Best believe they can cut an additional $20 million by not hiring to fill open positions in the department and by reducing overtime expenditures. Durkan also said that SPD and the City Budget Office are doing “deep dives” on 911 calls and SPD’s specialty units to see what could be handled better by civilians, as well as on arrest and booking data to see if issuing citations would be more appropriate. However, she cautioned that these areas are “deeply complex” and that changes must be planned carefully to put alternative resources in place before SPD’s resources are reduced. The Council, for its part, is talking about many of the same issues, and in fact is suggesting many of the same changes.

Where they differ sharply is what changes should be made to SPD in the remainder of 2020. Under pressure from protesters and advocacy groups, seven of the nine Council members have publicly committed to supporting a cut of at least 50% to SPD’s remaining 2020 budget. That, Durkan argues, is “irresponsible,” since in her estimation they have done so without talking to Chief Best, and without a plan or an assessment of the impact to public safety of those changes, the labor implications, or whether the cuts would take the city out of compliance with the consent decree. “You can’t govern by Twitter or bumper sticker,” Durkan asserted this morning.

For the record, the Council members have also made the verbal commitment to at least a 50% cut in 2021 as well, and Durkan objects to that as well, but they are months away from actually working on a 2021 budget. In contrast, the Council is revising the 2020 budget right now.

Chief Best did her best to reinforce Durkan’s message this morning, doubling down on comments she made in a memo last Friday outlining the implications to SPD if the Council’s proposed budget cuts were made. In that memo Best said that she would be forced to disband many of the department’s specialty teams, and also might be forced to close the Southwest Precinct (in no coincidence, the district represented by Lisa Herbold, the Council’s public safety committee chair). Further she argued that because of labor rules she would be forced to lay off officers in reverse order of seniority:; the force would lose many of its recent BIPOC hires as a result, and would be less representative of the community as a whole. This morning, Best called the Council’s proposal “reckless,” and said that “there is simply no way that safety won’t be compromised if half of her officers are fired overnight or in a matter of months.”

But in its meeting this morning, several Council members pushed back on the accusations from the Mayor and police chief. Council member Strauss argued that the city is not providing public safety in the manner that community members want, and that de-funding the police will increase public safety rather than decrease it. In a nod to the Mayor’s points, however, he did admit that “transitions take time to be successful,” and that “the worst thing we could do is to transfer responsibility before programs are ready.”

Council President Gonzalez argued that the Council is using a scalpel rather than an axe, to plan what programs, and when, to scale up and down . She said that their conversations are “nuanced.”

Council member Herbold took more precise aim at Durkan’s and Best’s accusations, arguing:

  • they don’t intend to zero out the rest of the 2020 budget (Durkan had said it was unclear whether their commitment to a 50% reduction referred to the whole-year budget or just the remaining unspent half);
  • they are in the early stages of developing budget proposals (which seems inconsistent with a public commitment to a 50% reduction);
  • under state law, the Chief of Police can ask the Director of the Public Safety Civil Service Commission to lay off officers “out of order,” so that she wouldn’t necessarily need to fire BIPOC officers as she claimed;
  • regarding the threat to close the Southwest Precinct: either way, the City Charter states that there shall be adequate police protection throughout the city;
  • since each precinct has its own line-item in the city budget, it is the Council, and not the Chief of Police, who decides on spending authority for each precinct. That rule also applies to many of SPD’s other specialty units.

But Council members Lewis, Morales and Sawant went in the other direction, reiterating their commitment to a 50% cut in the remaining 2020 budget for the police department.

At the moment, Durkan and Best have the stronger case: with the Council scheduled to give final approval to a rebalanced 2020 budget on August 3, it only has three weeks to come up with a plan for alternative resources to respond to 911 calls instead of a greatly-diminished SPD. That would seem to be an impossible task. Last week the Council heard a presentation from Decriminalize Seattle and King County Equity Now on de-funding SPD; it presented several good ideas, but few of them in sufficient detail to be able to plan, resource and implement them instantly.

This leaves the Council caught between a rock and a hard place: under intense political pressure, a super-majority of Council members publicly committed to the goal of a 50% cut to SPD’s remaining 2020 budget — a promise that will be impossible to keep. On the other hand, Durkan and Best have offered almost nothing so far in terms of meaningful cuts to SPD’s 2020 budget: so far, nearly all of what Durkan has proposed were cuts already planned in response to the COVID-19-related revenue shortfall.  There is room for a compromise between a 50% cut and almost no cut, but both sides will need to swallow their pride, and take some political hits, to get there.

Hopefully they will do it sooner rather than later, so that together they can move past the 2020 budget woes and take the time to get meaningful changes planned for 2021.

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  1. So they close the Southwest precinct and rely upon “adequate”, defined how? Already in West Seattle we haven’t access to resources such as Harborview because of the bridge failure. I’m leaving Seattle just as soon as I can sell my house and settle my wife into a new job elsewhere.

    1. That’s a good question. The West Precinct is the smallest, and the most recently created; it was spun out of the South Precinct in 2003. If SPD staff is cut in half, it would certainly make sense to look at shrinking and/or consolidating precincts — though to your point, the loss of the West Seattle bridge dose make it harder to serve the West Seattle peninsula from elsewhere.

  2. A lot of what Herbold says seems pretty disingenuous to me. Even if Chief Best did ask to lay off officers “out of order” I have to believe SPOG would file a labor relations grievance and it would become a very protracted process. For her to suggest it’s a request by the Chief really oversimplifies that issue. I would also think there is a minimal staffing requirement to operate a precinct / speciality team effectively and if the council really does follow through with a 50% cut SPD simply would not have the staff to operate all the precincts and would have to close one or more. The council should own the fall out from their draconian cuts rather than try to deflect blame. If the council follows through with these changes without an adequate alternative in place could citizens file a lawsuit similar to McCleary accusing the city of not meeting its obligations to public safety? It really seems like that might the only way to force the council to take a step back and approach with this in a thoughtful way instead of the punitive manner they are doing now.

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