The inability of Seattle’s City Council and Mayor Jenny Durkan to collaborate on police reform and solutions to homelessness is deeply troubling.
Seattle is in a precarious situation. Its economic success is less certain, violent crime is increasing, and the pandemic erased slow but steady gains on homelessness.
Progress the Seattle Police Department made under federal oversight over the last decade, and plans new Chief Adrian Diaz has for re-imagining the force, are now overshadowed by serious missteps during recent protests.
Seattle still has tremendous assets. It remains one of the world’s most beautiful and prosperous cities, home to progressive employers and a world-class workforce committed to positive change.
Moving forward demands professionalism and civility among council members and the mayor. It also requires deliberate and inclusive policymaking, informed by all parts of the community, not just special interests.
Here’s a framework to guide this period of critical civic work, which begins in earnest with the 2021 budget deliberations starting this week.
- Restore safety and civility downtown and in neighborhoods.
- Restore accountability. That includes accountability for groups that receive money from the city, and elected officials’ accountability for any harm that results if they take money from city programs.
- Reinvent policing, thoughtfully and carefully.
- Restoration of jobs, livability and the decimated retail sector.
Unions, particularly the Seattle Police Officers Guild, need to be cooperative partners in this work.
This editorial board will write repeatedly about these themes as Seattle moves toward recovery from the pandemic and economic crisis, and toward a future with a less biased and more equitable criminal justice system.
Things are off to a rocky start, judging from last week’s show of City Hall dysfunction.
On Tuesday, the council refused to negotiate legislation that will slash salaries of police leadership and force layoffs of a new, diverse class of recruits.
Those punitive policy changes prompted the resignation of Carmen Best, the city’s first Black female police chief, and vetoes by Durkan that paused the legislation last month.
Instead of using that pause to refine its proposals and include input from more than a few activist groups, the Council wouldn’t budge and overrode the vetoes.
The council also affirmed legislation borrowing $14 million from other city services so it can give the money to nonprofits exploring public-safety options. It also took $3 million from its rainy-day fund to give to an unspecified community group to do research into safety issues.
While the council left most of the police budget intact for now, it defunded an innovative program, the Navigation Team, that pairs police and social workers to address dangerous and problematic homeless encampments.
Durkan said that decision will have a direct and clear impact if it takes effect: “People will see an increase in visible homeless.”
The mayor said it’s ironic that several council members who voted to cut the Navigation Team were simultaneously asking for assistance removing encampments in their districts. She declined to name them.
Disagreements over how much law enforcement is needed also marked last year’s budget debate.
Despite a rash of crime by repeat offenders, Council President M. Lorena González and others pushed back on new approaches suggested by Durkan and a regional task force convened to address the problem.
At least 100 prolific offenders, mostly homeless with drug problems, repeatedly cycle through the criminal-justice system with scant improvement or consequence for harm they cause others.
One of Durkan’s proposals was a new probation model, with counselors trained in trauma and offering reduced sentences if offenders received drug treatment.
That pilot program was cut by González during budgeting last fall. She favored giving more money to an existing diversion program, even though judges testified that something new was needed for a small group of offenders for whom existing programs didn’t work.
A poster case for this systemic failure was Travis Berge, who was booked into jail 47 times between 2013 and 2019. Among the reasons he was arrested: attempting to rape a woman sleeping in a Capitol Hill doorway in 2015.
Berge skipped treatment ordered by the courts and refused offers of shelter, so his situation was not for want of housing or social services.
A year after González and the council defunded the enhanced probation program, Seattle still hasn’t figured out how to adequately handle such prolific offenders and reduce the substantial harm they cause themselves and others.
Berge remained a troubled menace until Sept. 16, a week before the council once again voted to cut law enforcement funding and give more to nonprofits.
That’s the day Berge is suspected of killing a woman he’d been squatting with at Cal Anderson Park. He was found dead in a tank of bleach at the park.
Some fault lies with the state and federal governments, which must do more for those with drug and mental-health issues.
Meanwhile, Seattle must find ways to improve both law enforcement and behavioral health services, without compromising public safety.
Solving that long-standing puzzle will be even harder now that its politics are blended with the urgent, renewed effort to end racist policing and excessive police force.
This is critically important policymaking and an opportunity for Seattle to innovate and lead, if its elected leaders are collaborative, deliberate, realistic and inclusive.
Berge’s horrible death and the murder of his friend are just the latest tragic reminder of what’s at stake.