A decade of progress reducing police violence and racism in Seattle may be lost because the City Council has lost its bearings.
U.S. District Court Judge James Robart, who is overseeing the city’s federally mandated police reforms, should intervene.
Robart should ask the city to explain how it will sustain progress, and comply with its federal consent decree, if the council blindly slashes police funding and defunds critical elements of its compliance plan.
For instance, the council is considering cutting funds for police bias training, and data collection and analysis. The latter is an essential tool for identifying and addressing bias and excessive force.
There is precedent for such intervention. In August of 2016, Robart blocked the city from proceeding with police-accountability legislation, ordering that it be reviewed by the court before final approval.
Robart also engaged during city negotiations with a police union, demanding that the city not be forced to pay extra for constitutional policing.
The situation is complicated by disputes over the use of force during recent demonstrations in Seattle.
In July, Robart temporarily suspended a new city law prohibiting the use of crowd-control weapons like tear gas and blast balls. He was persuaded by the U.S. Department of Justice, which argued that the city law could leave police in situations with no option other than more severe types of force.
Such nuances seem lost on the City Council. Its focus should be on making sustainable police reforms that increase safety for everyone. The foundation for that are reforms started in 2012, prompted by a federal civil-rights investigation. These improvements, which are proven to reduce excessive force, also increase the cost of policing.
Yet the majority of the council appears set on slashing the police budget regardless of the effect on reforms. Not to mention public safety.
What happened to the sympathy Council President M. Lorena González expressed for residents with “reasonable and legitimate concerns” about crime? A year ago she chided Mayor Jenny Durkan for not increasing police presence in additional neighborhoods.
The council has yet to articulate how its defunding proposals, including cutting 60 or more officers and the SWAT and harbor-patrol teams, will preserve or increase safety.
In making such drastic changes, the council should work with Durkan, who negotiated the decree in her earlier role as U.S. Attorney; Police Chief Carmen Best; neighborhood groups and the city’s Community Police Commission.
Instead, the council appears to be taking guidance mostly from Decriminalize Seattle and King County Equity Now, entities that emerged from recent protests. They are now affiliated with labor and community organizations that could receive millions in reallocated funds.
One “defund” proposal advancing on the council would borrow $9 million from other city programs and give it to an unspecified nonprofit.
That private entity would distribute the public dollars to other nonprofits. Criteria for selecting the nonprofits was apparently cut and pasted directly from King County Equity Now’s “demand” letter into the proposed ordinance.
Community organizations are important partners in addressing social problems, and providing supports that prevent youth and others from entering the criminal justice system. But they generally complement, and don’t replace, progressive law enforcement systems. The council also has a terrible record of ensuring social-service vendors meet performance standards, especially if the vendors become political allies.
It would be tragic if the momentum behind true, sustainable police reform was squandered in Seattle by the same old City Hall politicking.
Even worse would be if that undermines Seattle’s proven success at reducing police violence and bias.
Judge Robart can’t fix shortsightedness.
But he can assert his authority to enforce the consent decree, and hopefully ensure that politicians don’t destroy Seattle’s progress toward equitable, constitutional policing.