Council approves amendments to force layoffs in SPD, disband Navigation Team, and more

Today the City Council marched through about two dozen amendments to the 2020 budget intended to address calls to partially defund and re-organize the Seattle Police Department. Along the way, they also achieved another long-time goal of progressive advocates: eliminating the Navigation Team.

After the vote this afternoon, I recorded an hour-long debrief with Omari Salisbury of Converge Media and Marcus Green of the South Seattle Emerald. It was a great, far-ranging conversation, and I think you’ll enjoy watching it.


The council’s major accomplishments today include:

There were, of course, issues (and speeches — so many speeches) along the way.

The layoffs required a discussion of two issues, both raised in a memo sent by the city’s HR department yesterday. First is the issue of whether the city can conduct layoffs “out of order” to preserve the diversity of its most recent classes of recruits, or whether it must follow the civil service rules that specify that layoffs must proceed in reverse order of seniority. The Council has been pushing the notion that the Chief of Police can petition the Public Safety Civil Service Commission (PSCSC) for permission to conduct out-of-order layoffs, and the rules say that she can if she can prove that doing so is “necessary for the efficient operation of the department.” But the HR department poured cold water on that idea. While technically it is allowed, the memo points out that Chief Best may need to make the case individually for each exception to the seniority ordering; it also says that the exception rule has never been cited or tested, and there is no definition of “efficient operation of the department.”  Further, each laid-off officer may plead their case to the PSCSC, which could take several months. Finally, out-of-order layoffs would likely lead to litigation

The second issue with layoffs is that they need to be bargained, in which the unions representing laid-off workers can explore alternatives, including ones the result in fewer layoffs such as an early retirement program or furlough days.  The memo points out that under PSCSC rules, the layoffs can’t be implemented until either labor negotiations are completed or the matter moves to mediation. That alone makes it unlikely that the layoffs would be completed by the Council’s target date of November 1 — and the COVID restrictions will stretch out the timeline even further. The HR department has already received demands to bargain from the four big unions representing SPD employees: SPOG, SPMA, SPEOG (parking enforcement officers), and the Police Dispatchers’ Guild.

The Council’s discussion had two main threads. First, they anticipated the difficulty that layoffs might encounter, which is why they didn’t re-allocate payroll savings for November and December to other uses; instead they protected it with a proviso so that SPD couldn’t spend it but the Council can release it back to the department later if necessary.

Second, some of the Council members expressed frustration with what they considered a defeatist attitude by the Chief of Police and the Mayor with regard to layoffs. Council President Gonzalez was the most vocal in this camp, noting that the staff reductions in SPD will happen either this year or next, and either way the city needs to overcome the obstacles to layoffs. She took that argument one step further, arguing that the reaction from the Mayor and Chief suggested they weren’t bought into the idea of reducing SPD’s headcount — ever.

The $14 million of community funding is intended to be $17 million; but at the moment, the other $3 million is locked up in the COVID-19 relief bill that the Mayor just vetoed. So the Council needs to vote to override the Mayor’s veto, then pass another ordinance that reallocates $3 million to fund community-led research into re-imagining public safety in Seattle. That will play out next Wednesday at a special meeting of the City Council.

The demise of the Navigation Team happened in two pieces. First, the Council unanimously de-funded the 14 sworn SPD officers assigned to the Nav Team. Second, it took up a bill that would redirect funding in HSD and FAS from the Nav Team to homeless outreach efforts. That second amendment prompted a long back-and-forth discussion about the history and goals of the Navigation Team (see my article last year laying out the birth and evolution of the team over the years). In the end, the Council acknowledged that the Navigation Team was a failed experiment, starting as a new approach to outreach but ending as a team almost entirely focused on encampment removals, wherein its dual missions — offering services and removing problematic encampments — were fundamentally incompatible. Even so, the vote to redirect the funding was close: it passed by a 5-4 vote, with Pedersen, Strauss, Juarez and Lewis voting against it. Assuming the Council and Mayor follow through, all that will remain of the Navigation Team will be the funding in the Parks and Recreation Department for trash and litter removal at encampment sites, which everyone seems to agree is still valuable.

Sawant’s earlier proposal to cap SPD compensation at $150,000 annually took an unusual twist today. She was informed by staff that since compensation for union-represented employees is determined in their respective collective-bargaining agreements, the Council could not unilaterally cap it. However, SPD’s command staff — about 13 people — are not represented; while the Council can’t reduce their salaries to $150,000 per year, it can reduce it down to the lowest rung in their pay bands. So Sawant broke her amendment into two parts:

  • capping the command staff’s wages for the rest of the year to the lowest wage in the job classification’s pay zone, or enacting equivalent savings elsewhere in SPD’s budget;
  • requiring monthly reports from SPD on employees earning more than $150,000 for the year.

The second part passed unanimously; the first, however required a protracted discussion. Questions were raised about whether it would be legal to cut their salaries if their compensation was specified in an employment agreement; Sawant replied that she had consulted with city attorneys and had been assured that it is legal (though the Council’s staff acknowledged that it might require a case-by-case legal analysis).  Also, the change is only for the 2020 budget year; as of January 1 the salaries would revert back to their current levels absent further action by the city. In the end, the Council passed it by a 6-3 vote, with Pedersen, Lewis and Juarez voting against.

Earlier in the week Sawant had proposed an amendment that would cut another $54 million from SPD’s budget, bringing the full cut to the 50% target that advocacy groups and protesters have been pushing for. Today she offered two alternate versions:

Neither found much enthusiasm; Council member Mosqueda gave a “courtesy second” to the first version so that it could at least be discussed, but then it was voted down 1-7-1 (Gonzalez abstained). The second version didn’t even garner a second to allow it to be considered.

An amendment to move the 911 call center out of SPD and into a holding pattern in FAS until a new public-safety department can be established is now bogged down in bureaucracy after discussions with the union representing the dispatch workers. According to Council members, the workers are open to moving out of SPD so long as they are housed in a “first-responders agency,” but there’s a catch: an emergency dispatch department needs an Originating Agency Indicator (ORI) in order to be able to access criminal justice information systems. SPD has and ORI but FAS doesn’t, and would need to apply. So moving the 911 call center to FAS right now would effectively disconnect it from all of its peers. Staff are looking into the application process, though it seems likely that the move will simply need to wait — possibly until a new civilian public-safety organization can be set up to be its new home.

In the meantime, Strauss said that he will be bringing forward an additional amendment on Monday that replaces the sworn officers managing the 911 call center with a civilian director and deputy-director.

Finally, Sawant’s proposed proviso that would prohibit SPD from assisting in efforts to prosecute protestors got hung up today. Earlier this week Lewis expressed some concerns about ensuring that it didn’t overreach into cases of physical violence that the Council still wanted to see prosecuted, and today’s version had amended language that addressed some of his stated concerns. But others continued to raise issues, such as the proviso focus on protesters participating in “Justice for George Floyd” demonstrations. Gonzalez raised issues about how to decide which of the protests over the last two months were “Justice for George Floyd” protests; Juarez raised equal-protection concerns that counter-protests, and in fact all peaceful protesters, should be included — and that the city shouldn’t pick a side. Sawant pushed back on that, suggesting that SPD doesn’t arrest right-wing protesters.

Sawant said that she will continue to work on the language of the amendment, and the Council will revisit it on Monday.

Monday morning the budget committee will meet one more time, attempting to tie up today’s loose ends and ultimately vote the amended budget out of committee. It will then give its final stamp of approval Monday afternoon at the full City Council meeting.

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  1. A lot of these cuts are from vacant positions, that were unfunded due to the Covid pandemic. So the chief won’t be losing direct officers, just the ability to replenish most of her speciality units.

    That seems to be the philosophy the council is taking, to avoid major labor litigation that could take months and they could potentially lose. They want to cut whatever they can and let the rest cut through attrition.

    Unless I’m wrong and you can correct me, only about 32 of the 85 cuts are direct layoffs to recruits. The rest are cutting vacancies and massive attrition cuts.

    Also, correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems like the council next year won’t make any cuts and will look to cut via attrition. I think they realize cutting represented employees is a huge battle and maybe won’t happen due to Washington states incredible labor laws.

    What do you think Kevin? I think even moving dispatch, PEO and OEM will be a massive process, they will have to negotiate with them and what if any of them say no? That includes mediation, arbitration and further litigation.

    I think the council played it smart today and realized what they can cut (recruits, vacant positions) and what they can only cut by attrition (Sworn officers)

    My other question to you is how will the city cut more officers next year outside of attrition? Every single represented officer has the right to challenge their lay-off especially any out of order layoffs. The city wants to cut 100 cops next year, how will they achieve that outside of attrition?


    Seattle resident

    1. According to SPD, they are not vacant positions. In fact, just the opposite: SPD reports that it filled all of its available sworn positions earlier this year, and the COVID pandemic/shutdown caused attrition to go to almost zero.

  2. I watched your discussion and it was very interesting. Everyone highlighted a number of good points and questions.

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