In the exercise of a fundamental right enshrined in the First Amendment of the Constitution, millions of people peacefully assembled in the streets, on social media, or engaged in other avenues of discourse to articulate their horror at the killing of George Floyd. They demanded that the time for change is long past due to address how we police communities and people of color.
In Seattle, this moment of reflection has been underway since 2011, as the Department of Justice, the city of Seattle and community stakeholders have gone about the work of ensuring that Seattleites have a police department that, among other things, tracks and reviews its uses of force, incorporates community input into its policies and practices, and ensures that police contacts with individuals are constitutional. This work has been difficult, taken years, and required monitoring to ensure that SPD stays on track and that change becomes part of its culture. But it is working.
Many aspects of the progress of the Seattle Police Department under the consent decree, including review of force and crisis intervention, will serve as a model for other departments across the country as they navigate their own reform efforts.
Disappointingly, some city council members have seized on this moment of reflection to push their agenda to “defund the police.” While there is no clear agreement of what “defunding the police” looks like in Seattle, a majority of the city council has committed to cutting 50% from the police department’s budget. The impact of this is anyone’s guess. Will timely rape kit testing fall prey to the budget ax? Will the internet Crimes Against Children (ICAC) Task Force that pursues online sex predators make the cut? Will the gun crime intelligence initiatives that use science to aid the apprehension of violent criminals make the grade? And most important, who will bear the brunt of the cuts, the poor or the privileged? Apparently, for the council members advocating these irresponsible budget cuts, we have the following assurances — trust us; details to follow.
The lack of analysis by these city leaders and the magnitude of the consequences of this decision are both alarming and reckless. It’s like the man who jumps off a tall building and is asked as he passes the 10th floor on the way to the ground, “How’s it going?” “So far, so good,” comes the answer. But make no mistake, the impact of this decision will be rapid and devastating.
I am not so naive or inexperienced to believe that every police officer belongs on the job. I have prosecuted some who should not wear a badge. But I have also seen the very best in these public servants — the dedication and long hours it takes to solve the rape case of a frightened child; running toward danger when every human instinct is to flee; and putting oneself between battling domestic combatants, who then turn on the officer as a common enemy. While I have seen firsthand a few bad apples, I have wept at the funerals of far more who gave their lives to protect and serve their communities.
For a number of weeks the country watched while we engaged in an experiment called the Capitol Hill Occupied Protest (CHOP). We saw the human impact of Seattle’s “hands off CHOP” policy play out in deadly fashion. Two young Black men were killed; crime rose 525%, according to Mayor Jenny Durkan; and 911 calls went unheeded or responses were greatly delayed. Put simply, CHOP quickly devolved into chaos because police were absent.
These council members now want the public to believe that scaling up the disastrous CHOP experiment to an entire police department, and across an entire city, will work. If you liked what you saw in the CHOP, then you’ll love a police department that is defunded by half. Nevertheless, Seattle’s leaders should take the advice we would all give the man contemplating jumping off that tall building — don’t jump.