Council postpones consideration of $5.4M cut to SPD budget

On Tuesday morning, Councilmember Herbold postponed, potentially for several weeks, consideration of a bill that would cut another $5.4 million from the Seattle Police Department’s 2021 budget.

Though Herbold didn’t directly cite it, the sudden move to hold the bill is in response to Judge Robart’s “harsh words” directed at the City Council last week, in which he put the Councilmembers on notice that he wouldn’t hesitate to once again block their moves to restrict or shrink SPD if he found that they jeopardized public safety or left the department without a plan or sufficient resources to provide essential services to the city — or if the Council didn’t follow the processes laid out in the 2012 Consent Decree. This week Herbold said that she was holding the bill in order to confer with the DOJ, the court-appointed police monitor, and the court to ensure that the budget cuts doesn’t impede compliance with the Consent Decree. This week Herbold’s committee also sent a draft of a new version of its ban on crowd-control weapons to the DOJ and police monitor for review, a required step under the Consent Decree that the Council skipped last summer when it passed its original ban that forced Judge Robart to block its implementation — and landed the Council on Robart’s naughty list.

This particular $5.4 million cut, which is on top of the cuts that the Council made to SPD’s 2020 budget last August and in the department’s 2021 budget last fall, has a long and inglorious history relating to SPD’s use, and abuse, of overtime.

For many years, the police department dramatically overran its overtime budget, and came back to the City Council after the fact at the end of every year to ask for more money — too late for the Council to make cuts to any other areas in SPD’s budget to offset the overrun. The Council grudgingly, resentfully, approved the additional funding every year because it had no choice: the money had already been spent.

In 2016, the City Auditor published a report on SPD’s lack of internal controls over overtime, with several recommendations. Some of those recommendations have been addressed by SPD, and in the intervening years up until last year the department had made significant progress in getting its overtime under control and to be more predictable.

However, 2020 was a problematic year, for several reasons. First, COVID quarantines of SPD officers — often with little advance notice — created challenges for the department to make predictable staffing schedules, and the department needed to call in officers on overtime to fill out some shifts. Second, the nightly protests created demand for police officers to work additional shifts. Third, toward the end of the year the unprecedented number of officer departures from the force once again created challenges for SPD to cover all shifts. That said, there’s a good argument that some of this is self-inflicted: many have argued that SPD over-staffed protests throughout the summer, which tended to escalate tensions with protestors rather than ensure public safety. However, hindsight is 20/20 and at the time SPD thought it was doing the right thing in calling in additional officers to be prepared for the worst (since September, SPD has changed its policy for protests and demonstrations toward lower staffing levels, at the urging of the OPA, OIG and CPC).

In June, July and August, the Mayor and the Council debated and negotiated a “rebalanced” 2020 budget, incorporating cuts to SPD to address both the dramatic fall-off in city revenues and he demands from activists to “defund” SPD. On June 23rd, Mayor Durkan submitted to the Council her proposed rebalanced budget, which included an $8.6 million cut in SPD’s overtime line-item from $29.8 million to $21.2 million. The Council accepted that cut, and added several of its own: to travel, training, and other ancillary expenses, but also to SPD’s staffing budget. In passing its rebalanced 2020 budget, the Council attached a resolution spelling out promises for additional cuts to SPD’s budget in 2021. The resolution also included this, which the Councilmembers added to ensure that SPD wouldn’t return to its old ways of overtime mismanagement to circumvent the Council’s budget cuts:

The City Council will not support any budget amendments to increase the SPD’s budget to offset overtime expenditures above the funds budgeted in 2020 or 2021.

There are a couple of problems with this approach, at least in how the Mayor and Council went about it. First, since SPD’s overtime is at some level unpredictable — who knew back in June that nightly protests would continue for months, and who knows what major event might happen next week? — it only makes sense to draw a hard line like this with an expectation that SPD could cover any overrun with money from other buckets in its budget. And often it has in part; except that the Council’s rebalanced SPD budget wiped out many of the other buckets that SPD might take from, including excess salary.

Second, SPD’s records show that as of the end of July — ten days before the Council gave final approval to its rebalanced 2020 budget — SPD had already spent $23.3 million in overtime, $2.1 million more than what the Mayor and Council had left in its budget. So the moment that the Budget passed, SPD was already overbudget for overtime. And by the time the Council overrode the Mayor’s veto in mid-September, that figure had grown by another $1 million. Blame for this goes on both the Mayor and the Council: the Mayor’s proposed cut was unrealistic, and the Council made it worse by denying SPD any flexibility to make it work.

SPD’s monthly overtime hours through October 2020. As of July 31, the department had already spent almost $23.3 million — more than the $21.2 million in the rebalanced budget the Council approved ten days later.

In December, the City Budget Office submitted to the Council its fourth-quarter supplementary budget ordinance, ordinarily a boring piece of legislation that moves some money around and approves some grant funding. But this time it included a request for $5.4 million of additional funding for SPD, to cover:

  • Using $1.9 million of FEMA reimbursement dollars that the city had received to cover COVID costs within SPD: $1 million for overtime for planning, staffing and traffic direction at COVID testing sites; and $900,000 for additional COVID-related PPE and other supplies.
  • $1.9 million for expenses related to higher-than-anticipated paid parental leave. The city budget had set aside a central bucket of money for this purpose that could be drawn from by all departments, including SFD (which had done so).
  • $1.6 million to cover higher-than-anticipated “separation pay” for officers leaving SPD. To be clear: “separation pay” is a cash payout for the accrued leave that an employee still has unused at the time they depart. Since attrition was much higher than expected in the final months of 2020, and because COVID restricted many officers’ ability to use their accrued leave, this turned out to be a much larger number than was originally budgeted.

In explaining this request, SPD and the City Budget Office said that it had moved around money internally to cover most overruns, including its overtime, with savings in other places — despite the Council’s several trims to the department’s budget — but these were items it was simply not able to cover. Also notable, beginning in August it substantially reduced overtime hours, despite the ongoing protests.

The Council members, especially budget chair Mosqueda, threw a fit. They could have persuasively argued that the $1 million for overtime was unacceptable; instead they argued that the entire $5.4 million was unacceptable because if SPD hadn’t needed to cover OT overspend with other sources, it could have used those other sources to cover this. Except that, as we saw above, the Council’s rebalanced budget provided less for overtime than what SPD had already spent, so the department was always destined to be over-budget on overtime last year. And on top of that, the Council took away most of the fungible money that would have allowed SPD to manage over-budget line-items.

But instead of taking any of that into consideration — or even spending enough time on the issue to figure it out — the Council approved the $5.4 million (not doing so might have meant that city officials would have to cover the separation pay and/or parental leave out of their own pockets) but committed to cutting another $5.4 million from SPD’s 2021 budget to offset it (read: punish SPD), and add the funds to the $30 million it had already set aside for a participatory budgeting program this year. Of course, part of this is the tremendous political pressure that the Council feels to hold the line on SPD’s budget, if not cut if further. Certainly adding money to the police budget is a politically untenable action for them.

The bill, now on hold in Herbold’s committee, represents that commitment to take a pound of flesh from SPD. It makes little logical sense since SPD’s budget doesn’t carry over from one year to the next — and in fact SPD’s 2021 overtime budget remains at the lowered $21.2 million level for this year. Herbold and her colleagues are justifying it because SPD’s attrition has continued to be higher than expected, creating additional salary savings that they believe will cover the amount, but that takes away SPD’s ability to use some or all of those salary savings to compensate for the further-reduced ranks of officers it can draw on for shifts. That might put the Council at odds with Judge Robart as to whether the cut would reduce SPD’s ability to deliver essential services.

SPD went one step further, sending Council staff a memo last month detailing its need to retain the $5.4 million. The department pitched several needs:

  • additional overtime to address the staffing shortage;
  • filling civilian positions, such as Crime Prevention Coordinators and/or staff to address the severe backlog of public document requests that currently take up to 12 months to satisfy;
  • technology needs to improve the department’s data access platform, which would increase its ability to deliver required reports to the DOJ and police monitor as well as to the Council;
  • additional separation pay and paid parental leave in 2021, which both continue to trend high.

Prior to last week, there was little sign that the Council would entertain SPD’s request to hold on to the money. But now, after Robart’s rebuke, things may have changed. At the end of the day, the DOJ and the police monitor will probably have the final say: if they recommend that SPD hold on to the money to ensure appropriate staffing levels, the Council will almost certainly go along with it. And it might serve the Council’s interest to do so, as it gives them an alibi for backing away from their promise to defund SPD by another $5.4 million.

We shouldn’t expect a speedy resolution to this; it may take weeks for the DOJ and police monitor to consider and formulate their responses.


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  1. Is there a major American city that has cracked the code on financially prudent but nimble overtime budgeting for police? This can’t be unique – have the multiple efforts, research and audits found some city doing it right?

  2. The dumb part about this whole escapade is that overtime is cheaper for police departments than hiring more officers and much easier given the very slow hiring bottleneck in Washington. The report Kevin embeds states as much. So when the department spends on overtime instead of hiring, it saves money. Cutting the overtime budget is pointless and punitive.

    The problem is that there’s only so many officers. The more your officers work, the more tired they are, and the worse their decision making gets. King County SO did a study finding their officers working loads of overtime got more complaints and used more force.

    So, as usual, every aspect of the council’s program here is counterproductive. Unless you deliberately want to destroy the police department and undermine police reform, which is entirely possible.

    Hey Kevin, are you ever going to post about the 70% increase in murders, or is it just bodies under the bridge for you now that you’re woke?

    1. Keep your sarcasm to yourself. I’m only one person, I can’t do comprehensive coverage, so I pick very carefully my topics based upon what I think other people aren’t covering and where I can bring some unique value. “70% increase in murders” is a story others are quite capable of writing, and some in fact are.

      If you think that or some other topic isn’t getting enough attention, I encourage you to set up a blog of your own and start writing. There are more than enough topics to write about for all of us.

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