Council struggles with proposed SPD budget cut

Usually when the City Council gives itself sufficient time to research and deliberate on policy questions, the issues eventually become clear and in many cases work themselves out. But in the current case of a proposed $5.4 million cut to the Seattle Police Department budget, things have become messier as the weeks and months have passed. The path forward is now murky, and the Councilmembers are deeply divided on what action to take.

The proposed cut originated in December, when SPD asked the Council to top off its 2020 budget with an additional $5.4 million. Last summer the Council warned SPD that it would not tolerate another annual budget overrun for overtime that required increasing its budget at the end of the year; SPD is notorious for overtime budget overruns and then forcing the Council to increase its budget after the fact. SPD did overrun its overtime budget again in 2020, but covered it by transferring funds from other line-items. However, it had some unanticipated end-of-year expenses, such as increased separation pay, that still left it overbudget. While the overrun technically wasn’t in overtime, the Council pointed out that if SPD hadn’t overrun its overtime budget it would have had sufficient funds to cover the end-of-year overrun in other line-items and wouldn’t need to ask for more money. It covered the $5.4 million for 2020, but committed to cut $5.4 million from SPD’s 2021 budget to send a signal about budget accountability.

Councilmember Herbold, the Council’s public safety committee chair, introduced a bill early this year to enact that budget cut. But it was met with “harsh words” from Judge James Robart, who oversees the 2012 consent decree related to SPD’s biased policing. Robart made it clear that the city has duties under the City Charter as well as the consent decree to appropriately fund SPD, and he did not look favorably upon what he saw as arbitrary cuts to the department’s budget. SPD also objected, and in a presentation to the Council presented dire figures on the dramatic increase of officer attrition that has continued into 2021. Interim Chief Adrian Diaz told the Council that he accepted the Council’s decision to fund fewer officers this year, but taking away dollars from his budget deprived him of the ability to mitigate the negative aspects of increased officer attrition. Diaz also pleaded with the Council to stop changing his budget and give him the certainty he needs to invest in programs this year. And finally, on the heels of that, the court-appointed police monitor, Antonio Oftelie, expressed to the Council his own concerns about cuts to SPD’s budget. Oftelie gives weekly reports to Judge Robart and has substantial influence over how Robart views the city’s actions related to the consent decree.

In an attempt to placate Oftelie and Robart, in March Herbold pushed through an amendment to her bill that would reduce the cut to $2 million (to be transferred to the participatory budgeting program that is being planned), and fund Diaz’s specific requests for uses of the funds that the Council was threatening to cut. She then sent that version of the bill to Oftelie and the Department of Justice for their feedback, and put the bill on hold until she heard back from them, so as not to give Robart the impression that the Council was once again stumbling forward on its own independent trajectory as it did last summer with its ban on SPD’s use of crowd-control weapons.

In the meantime, the issues related to SPD and its budget have multiplied. They now include:

  • SPD’s officer attrition has continued to trend high. If it remains on its current trendline, the Council’s central staff estimates that SPD will have approximately $13 million in salary savings in 2021 compared to its approved budget. There is also a strong possibility that attrition will get worse, and the salary savings could be substantially more.
  • Herbold frequently points out that SPD’s 2021 staffing plan, which involves an 18-month pipeline for new recruits, remains fully funded. Except for luring transfers from other law enforcement agencies, SPD has little flexibility on its hiring plan: it already knows how many new officers it is likely to hire this year because those officers are already in the training pipeline.
  • The Council also enacted a separate $5 million proviso freeze on SPD’s 2021 budget, anticipating that attrition might continue to be higher than originally forecast and salary savings might be higher so the money might not be needed. That proviso is still in force.
  • In addition, the Council imposed a $2.5 million proviso on SPD’s budget with the expectation that the department will move forward with “out of order” layoffs this year. Instead of laying off junior officers (who tend to fit a more diverse demographic profile) as required under the collective bargaining agreement, SPD would lay off more senior officers with a history of performance issues. But further research has shown that out-of-order layoffs face several legal barriers, including a state prohibition on adverse actions against officers on the Brady List, and a requirement that laid off officers be placed on a reinstatement register and rehired when SPD is hiring new officers. At this point even the most fervent promoters of out-of-order layoffs on the Council are acknowledging that until state laws change, they are effectively impossible to accomplish. Nevertheless, the $2.5 million proviso is still in place.
  • Herbold and some of her colleagues have indicated a willingness to lift one or both of the provisos still in place, freeing potentially up to $7.5 million in addition to the anticipated salary savings.
  • Last Friday Oftelie finally responded to Herbold’s request for feedback on the draft bill, indicating that he was still opposed to cuts to SPD’s budget and instead arguing for investment in the department.

Herbold is now floating another amendment to her bill that would still redirect $2 million of SPD’s budget to participatory budgeting, while continuing to fund Diaz’s requests for funds to mitigate staffing shortages, lifting both provisos, and leaving the remainder of the anticipated salary savings in place for SPD to utilize. She is performing a delicate dance here: while lifting a proviso technically doesn’t increase SPD’s budget (just as imposing one doesn’t decrease the budget), advocates for defunding SPD may choose to interpret it that way. Conversely, Herbold wants to get credit with Oftelie and Robart for lifting restrictions on SPD’s budget despite the $2 million transfer out. Herbold pointed out that given the inflexibility in SPD’s staffing plan, it is very unlikely to spend the entire $13 million of projected salary savings, and thus she remains confused as to Oftelie’s objections to trimming out of SPD’s budget funds that they are unlikely to use.

The four other Council members on Herbold’s committee are split on how to handle the $5.4 million (or $2 million) cut in front of them. Council President Gonzalez called it “a bill everyone is unhappy with,” while praising Herbold for diligently working it through its paces in her committee. She also emphasized the reality that the city entered into a consent decree willingly and is bound by the terms and supervision that it entails. But in the end she is not in favor of passing the bill now, preferring instead to wait until later in the year when they have more information about the state of affairs in SPD. Councilmember Morales, on the other hand, sees the situation as a funding crisis of SPD’s own making, and stated her belief that SPD has all of the officers that it needs at this time. She expressed her desire to stick to the original intent of the bill, enforcing budget accountability on SPD, and said that she believes SPD can absorb the entire $5.4 million cut with salary savings.  Councilmember Sawant continued to press her colleagues to live up to their original commitment from last summer to cut SPD’s budget by 50%, and opposes any effort to lift provisos or give SPD any ability to spend more money. Councilmember Lewis was fairly quiet, though he noted that not passing the bill, amended or otherwise, would allow SPD to continue on with its budget as approved by the Council last November: no $2 million transfer to beef up the participatory budgeting pot, but also $7.5 million in provisos left in place that Oftelie and Robart don’t seem pleased with.

A quick aside on how Council committee voting works: bills move out of committee with a recommendation for the full Council: either “pass” or “don’t pass.” If the vote is unanimous, then it can advance to the next full Council meeting (Monday afternoons) and can be voted on then for final approval, with the possibility of last-minute amendments. If the committee vote isn’t unanimous, then it’s recorded as a “divided report” out of committee, and by the Council rules must be held for an additional week so that all of the Council members can read the report, consult with each other and stakeholders, and further deliberate before taking a final vote in a full Council meeting.

In this case, when the committee voted on recommending passage of the bill, the vote was 2-3, with Herbold and Lewis voting “yes” and Gonzalez, Morales and Sawant voting “no”. So the bill goes to the full Council with a recommendation of “don’t pass,” and the earliest it can be scheduled for a vote is Monday, May 24. With all of the unresolved and intertwining issues, it is unclear how the other four Councilmembers will choose to vote on the bill, or whether some new compromises will be offered between now and then to try to build a 5-person majority to pass it. Though at this point it isn’t clear that Oftelie and Robart will be happy with any of the options under consideration, so the Council may be headed to another showdown in court.

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  1. I’m not seeing how cutting police budgets punish the police. It punishes those who need police services. I’m also not sure why we divert the money to underperforming communities with high rates of criminal activity. It seems like they are trying to punish the police for their wrongs but then are rewarding another demographic for their wrongs.

    1. I’m not sure what you mean by “underperforming” communities, or by what metric you are measuring their performance. Also, here in Seattle the rate of criminal activity doesn’t have much to do with where the money is going. But yes, there are arguments being made about who it really punishes when the police force is cut, especially measured by 911 response times.

      There certainly are communities that have been underinvested in: for basic infrastructure, for community facilities and services, for other things that help communities thrive socially and economically. The argument is that investment in those “upstream” will reduce the need for police later. Studies have shown there is some validity to that, but the timing of the shifting of money can be challenging. Ideally you want to invest to grow the alternatives before you start downsizing the police, but that depends on having the money to fund both simultaneously.

      In the meantime, there is plenty of evidence that there is significant bias in policing, including here in Seattle. That is the reason for the consent decree in the first place, and nine years in the studies done on SPD show that there is still significant bias in some aspects of policing here. If you talk to people who live in communities of color here, they will tell you that they are overpoliced on small crime, and underpoliced on more serious crime — where other neighborhoods might report just the opposite.

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