The Seattle City Council’s rush to cut the city’s police force has reached a dangerous precipice. U.S. District Judge James Robart warned Thursday that strong court action is possible if the council continues “defunding” actions that short the city’s need for safety.

Council members should not dance around the judge’s words to make further police funding cuts. City officials are right to step up social services to support people in crisis rather than defaulting to police interventions. But that does not mean policing should be immediately hollowed out.

Taking up the “defund the police” banner of activists who demolished city storefronts, the council hurried decisions in 2020 that imposed salary and budget reductions without even consulting department leaders. Chief Carmen Best quit in protest of the meddling. By the end of the year, the council had reduced the department’s budget by $69 million. And 186 officers had opted to go out the door — more than double the departures expected. Combined with a hiring freeze, this meant 298,000 fewer police service hours.

This endangers public safety. A Jan. 25 police department memo explains how:

“The department and City cannot hire its way out of a police staffing shortage of this magnitude, and the remaining officers cannot be expected to completely fill this gap on overtime at the expense of employee wellness,” the memo says. 

So far, the council has wished away this problem. The new social-service interventions that were supposed to cut the need for police at crisis scenes remain works in progress. Interim Chief Adrian Diaz had little choice but to shift 100 officers into patrol to fill the void — a decision that hampered the department’s ability to prevent crime with community policing.

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Robart assessed this landscape sternly:

“You can’t simply charge off in a direction without knowing what the consequences are, and having in place plans to replace essential services currently being provided by the police. If you do that, then you start to violate provisions in the court’s consent decree,” the judge warned.

That 8-year-old consent decree, a pact between the city and the U.S. Department of Justice, gives federal courts power over the city to ensure that the police department remains functional. Robart is rightly reluctant to micromanage city business. But the council’s activist majority has not shown similar prudence.

Incredibly, council members Lisa Herbold and Teresa Mosqueda have sponsored legislation to follow the cuts that drew Robart’s rebuke with still another cut.

The proposal would strip $5.4 million more from police to make yet another stride in the “defund” march. Herbold made one good decision when she paused her proposed cut Tuesday so court-appointed monitor Antonio Oftelie could review it. But the wiser move would have been to simply heed Robart’s plain language and drop the proposal.

This council’s reductions of police resources have already pushed the judge near the brink of taking strong action to intervene. Another cut to undermine police only tiptoes closer to the judge taking some control away from the elected council. The council must do right by the city and not invite this intervention. The reckless drive to “defunding” without careful planning to improve other responses must not continue to impair public safety.