The Seattle City Council’s headlong dash to defund police is irresponsible, destabilizing — and ongoing. A Sept. 13 council vote to further chisel away at the police budget perpetuates a malignant trend that is making Seattle a more dangerous place to live and work.
A year after council budget-cutting and tinkering with department structure led to Chief Carmen Best’s departure, almost 300 officers and detectives have followed her out the door. Seven of the council’s nine members pledged in July 2020 to take away at least half the department’s funding and reimagine public safety around fewer police interventions. But that goal failed to account for the city’s real need to ensure public safety. This is basic governance. The council has failed to provide a responsible transition and must be held accountable.
The council had one last opportunity to stanch the bleeding Sept. 13 and instead looked the other way.
Because of all those officer departures, the budget had about $15 million unspent on salaries and other expenses. Council members considered this money “savings,” which is true in the same sense fasting provides “savings” on the grocery budget.
For the past year, police response times to all levels of 911 calls have been rising. The median response to top-priority calls — a category including shootings, assaults and other life-threatening situations — for 2021 through this July registered at 7.3 minutes. That’s more than 10% slower than any year of the last decade. But that’s only scratching the surface. A Seattle Times analysis in May found police were responding to drastically fewer dispatch calls, and that emergency response times were still up even though police had simply stopped going to some nonemergencies, including break-ins.
Although the council shrugs off this poor output and tries to minimize the harm it has directly done to policing, the trend was noticed by somebody who was looking out for public safety — the judge in charge of federal oversight of the Seattle Police Department. U.S. District Judge James Robart warned in August that the department faces a “deepening crisis” caused by “too much of knee-jerk reaction and not enough forethought” from government leaders.
Even knowing all this, the council majority carted away money unspent on policing, in a city where policing is in the middle of cascading failures.
Both Mayor Jenny Durkan and Councilmember Alex Pedersen at least proposed that a fraction of the unspent money be rerouted into recruiting new police and retaining officers who remain. Both were rebuffed. Of the “savings,” $10 million went into department expenses including technology, and $5 million to other city spending, including $3 million for scaling up what the ordinance calls “the Council’s re-imagining of community safety work.”
Shifting that $3 million, or even $1 million, toward retaining veteran officers and recruiting new ones, as Pedersen proposed, would have been a mild but meaningful effort to stop the snowballing departures. It also would have been the first indication in a long while the council is concerned with the present state of city safety. Instead, after this last chop at policing in the 2021 budget, any hope of improvement rests with next year’s city budget.
The city’s new non-police intervention services may eventually succeed in replacing police responses to up to 14,000 calls a year, as Durkan’s office said in July. But, though the approach may have merit, those services aren’t ready yet, and the council’s disinterest in keeping existing public safety stable in the interim shows cart-before-the-horse thinking unfit for a major American city.
Voters should remember exactly which officials committed in 2020 to defund city policing: Council President M. Lorena González and members Teresa Mosqueda, Kshama Sawant, Tammy Morales, Lisa Herbold, Dan Strauss and Andrew Lewis.
That’s a supermajority, enough to pass any city legislation. They got Seattle here. They must answer publicly for why this transition to an allegedly safer city has instead produced such uncivil results.
With Mosqueda running for reelection and González running for mayor on the November ballot, there is a clear opportunity to say this failure is unacceptable. Voters should also demand that the 2022 budget, which the council will spend the next few weeks debating, address the real problems of Seattle’s residents today, not just the down-the-road aspiration of having a city that doesn’t need policing.