Some Seattle City Council members announced recently they had a 7 to 2 majority to cut the city’s Police Department’s budget by 50%.
They should slow down, engage the public, and consider the far-reaching and potentially destructive effects of their actions.
The 50% reduction number is arbitrary and lacks even a cursory review of needs, facts or data.
Council members don’t even know if the public wants a reduction of current service. A recent Elway poll found that, in Seattle, only 31% of voters support the cuts. But 54% are opposed. In another poll that asked if “reallocating 50% of the Seattle Police budget to community services” is a good idea, 48% of participants said yes and 44% said no.
Several of the seven council members ran last year advocating for increased police staffing. Andrew Lewis campaigned on adding more officers due to rampant crime downtown. Had he campaigned on cutting the department by 50%, he likely would not have won. Dan Strauss and Lisa Herbold similarly campaigned for more community policing. Herbold supported a plan to add 200 officers to the department.
Meanwhile, two council members are arguing for a more rational process, Debora Juarez and Alex Pedersen. Even though they are in the council minority, they have had protesters showing up at their homes in the middle of the night to yell threats, vandalize their property and intimidate their families.
Under community pressure, Council President M. Lorena González issued an official statement that fell short of condemning these actions. Interestingly, two 46th Legislative District lawmakers, Reps. Javier Valdez and Gerry Pollet, denounced the actions and defended Juarez, Pedersen and the democratic process when their council colleagues demurred.
Cutting the department by 50% would eliminate any hope of expanding community policing and the concept of police officers as guardians, not warriors. Unless the people of Seattle stop calling 911, the remaining officers will be doing nothing but responding to the most critical calls — which is mostly what they do now. Community policing requires enough officers to have the capacity to fully engage and understand the community they serve. We are struggling with this now — exactly why Herbold, Lewis and Strauss argued for higher staffing levels when they ran for office last year.
It makes sense to analyze how the 911 call load can be shared with other professionals, like social workers and mental-health professionals. But the safety of those other professionals needs to be taken seriously, not decided on a whim.
Currently, 475 patrol officers and 100 sergeants respond to more than 300,000 calls to 911 per year. Total calls for service average about 800,000 annually. Before the Consent Decree requiring reforms was implemented, SPD estimated that 70% of use-of-force encounters involved populations with mental illness or those under the influence.
That rate has dramatically improved. Based on the Crisis Use of Force report in 2018, of the 16,000 crisis contacts SPD handled over an 18-month period, only 1.7% resulted in a reportable use of force. Council members know these numbers because they are briefed on a regular basis by SPD and council staff. To pretend things have gotten worse here is to ignore the progress that has been achieved.
Members of the council majority say they want to reduce police overtime. But overtime is mostly a function of having low staffing levels compared to most cities our size. We have a lot of large events, some planned, some not. This requires more staffing. Without more officers, the workload requires more overtime.
On the issue of cutting officers, council members seemed surprised about rules governing the order of layoffs: Because of civil-service rules, police-officer layoffs would land first on the newly hired officers who tend to be more ethnically diverse and most familiar with the latest training. Some council members thought they could just get rid of the older, white male cops.
It shouldn’t be controversial to say race, gender and age discrimination in employment is wrong.
We are lucky to have Chief Carmen Best and Deputy Chief Adrian Diaz, who have a deep commitment to community policing and have a long history of developing programs to strengthen community safety and improving relationships. The chief and her team deserve the chance to continue their work of transforming policing in Seattle with Mayor Jenny Durkan and the council as partners. Durkan proposed to move the 911 center to civilian management and parking enforcement into the Seattle Department of Transportation.
The City Council appears to have a veto-proof majority to cut the budget by 50%. That much is clear.
What is less clear are the impacts that will result. Council members who support these cuts should slow down and better understand the needs of their constituents.
They should also apologize to their colleagues for the outrageous way they and their families have been treated simply because they are doing their jobs responsibly. We can move forward on re-imagining policing together if we allow for positive, constructive debate.