Policing must be reformed to reduce bias and brutality.
This is needed to confront systemic racism and decrease harm, particularly for minorities disproportionately victimized by excessive police violence.
To succeed, this policymaking must also be an inclusive and deliberate process.
So far that’s not happening in Seattle and King County, where politicians are charging ahead with headline-grabbing pronouncements about gutting the criminal justice system.
As “defund” moves from slogan to policy, officials need to widen the conversation and involve a broad range of community and neighborhood organizations, law enforcement and taxpayers at large.
There is widespread support for bold action on police reform. But that will dissipate if politicians make unrealistic, rash decisions, especially ones that reduce public safety.
A majority of the Seattle City Council, which has done little to address rising crime in parts of the city, signaled that it favors defunding the police by 50%.
Then County Executive Dow Constantine abruptly announced plans to close the downtown Seattle jail and stop detaining youth by 2025, at the $242 million youth facility that opened in February.
It would be tremendous if jails could close. But until serious and violent crime ends, they remain necessary, as evidenced by a recent surge in gun violence and more than 80 homicides in King County this year.
Constantine made his announcement before notifying County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg, whose office is now working on 7,000 felony cases.
“Obviously, we need a place to book people and hold people pretrial,” Satterberg said, adding that could happen at a different jail location.
What to do with the outdated downtown jail has been discussed for some time. That conversation must involve Seattle, suburban cities and taxpayers funding the system.
Lacking details of how to address the ongoing need for jail capacity, Constantine’s announcement came across as political posturing more than bold leadership.
Similarly, Seattle’s City Council cannot halve the police budget without first providing a specific, community-supported plan to maintain or improve current levels of public safety.
Seattle should build on lessons from its 2012 consent decree, a national model for reducing police violence, and not discard them in haste.
Training, supervision and data collection are key to reducing bias and excessive force, as demonstrated by Seattle’s progress under the decree. They also increase the cost of policing. Yet council members are mulling cuts to data collection, supervision and other advances.
Council members should heed warnings of Police Chief Carmen Best, who detailed numerous ways that sweeping cuts will slow progress, conflict with the federal decree and likely increase use of force.
“If we are to do the hard work ahead of us, we cannot argue about facts,” Best wrote. “If we are going to successfully meet the needs of our entire community, we must, together, create a plan, grounded in theory, guided by evidence, and governed by equity.”
The national path forward may end up pointing to reforms made in Seattle, as demanded by the Obama administration, federal overseers and community oversight.
What will Seattle contribute, if it discards a model proven to reduce the use of excessive police force?
Then there’s the question of public safety. Former Mayor Tim Burgess noted that Seattle Police already take too long to respond to many calls, including top priorities such as crimes in progress. What is the council’s plan to provide safety and justice to victims of those crimes?
Money influences politics. There is constant City Hall tension over whether to shift criminal-justice dollars to social-service organizations that lobby and back election campaigns.
Seattle should continue innovating with those nonprofits, such as using them to handle some situations that don’t require armed officers.
But can this council be trusted to get it right? It has obstructed efforts to hold service providers accountable when they fail to meet performance standards. Will that change if the council outsources police work to private vendors?
There is a groundswell of support to make bold criminal-justice reforms. This moment cannot be wasted.
Seattle and King County must listen to communities most affected, build on progress in reducing police violence and incarceration, and involve the broader community to create support for lasting change.