The Seattle City Council’s reckless rhetoric and slapdash moves to defund the police have hurt — not helped — the safety of residents citywide. The list is long: Funding cuts without the former chief’s insight and a climate that spurred an exodus of officers have hurt the department’s ability to respond to trouble.
Detectives and other specialists are pulling routine patrol shifts to respond to 911 calls rather than working to prevent or investigate crimes because the department is so short-handed. After calling 911, residents throughout the city have had to wait for police response that, in some instances, never happens. The pandemic’s restrictions on gatherings have helped keep some crime down, but police cannot keep up with even a reduced demand for help.
The council is poised to make yet another defunding mistake, even though a federal judge warned of court intervention if public safety is further eroded. On Tuesday, the council’s public safety committee could vote on a proposed $5.4 million reduction to Seattle police for community program spending, sending it to the full council.
Already, U.S. District Court Judge James Robart has warned the council that its actions could put it out of compliance with the 8-year-old federal consent decree. The binding agreement aims to correct what the U.S. Department of Justice found was a pattern of excessive force by Seattle police and evidence of biased policing.
Since 2012, the department has followed that decree’s mandates for specific training and policies, among other reforms. Any cuts that reduce training and supervision resources undermine those years of work.
Council members should better recognize their fundamental duty to keep the city safe each day while building toward its worthy long-term goal of a less police-centric safety system. This means delaying further cuts to the police budget until community resources intended to take over more services are in place and ramped up.
The national protests of 2020 after the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police spoke to the real hurt that communities of color have endured from unjust policing. Cities, including Seattle, urgently need to meet these calls to remake public safety. The “defunding” movement to channel police resources into other public services cut $870 million from policing in 25 major American cities, the Guardian found.
To succeed and help cities, this approach needs to be pursued strategically, not rashly. The Seattle City Council has gone the other way, cutting police by $69 million without realistic strategies for the next move. Chief Carmen Best, who was not consulted, quit, rather than lay off younger officers of color she worked to recruit. And 186 officers left the department in 2020 — more than double the expected number.
The consequences are stark. An SPD analysis found the department 158 officers and supervisors short of acceptable minimal staffing needs. On 221 days in 2020, officers in at least one precinct could respond only to high-priority 911 calls. Response times on even those calls shot up. The median response time for theft and alarm calls went from under 12 minutes in April to nearly 18 minutes in December.
Even after interim Police Chief Adrian Diaz described an unworkable “staffing crisis,” the council is foolishly considering more cuts. Committee chair Lisa Herbold and Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda are spearheading this legislation, which would send the city further in a bad direction.
The council cannot plead ignorance. Deputy Mayor Tiffany Washington told the committee March 9 how unrealistic it is to hope Seattle’s current street safety would be helped by shunting more money into community services, no matter how visionary. Council members should reflect on the powerful personal story Washington, a Black woman, told of watching her brother “being thrown down by police and arrested on multiple occasions.” She still has an expectation that police will come help if she calls. This is the real-world perspective that needs to guide policy.
“We will not see significant changes for decades as the community immune system is strengthened,” Washington said. “What this funding will not do is result in instant community safety.”
Until city agencies and other entities can reliably provide the vast array of social services, further hollowing out the police will only add to damage done. That’s not showing sensitivity to hurt communities. That’s creating an unsafe city.