It’s going to take Seattle citizens to redevelop our law enforcement programs here. The discord at Seattle City Hall will not be solved by our elected officials.
As Seattle Times reporter Daniel Beekman described [“Debates over Seattle spending, policing spotlight tension between mayor and City Council,” Sept. 8, A1], the antipathy between the mayor and council members serves only to invite a lack of confidence they can develop a revised approach to equitable, effective law enforcement.
They can’t. Here’s why.
First, the terms of the discussion on police reform grew out of protesters’ demands for a 50% cut in the police budget. That is impractical on many fronts, not the least of which is a legally binding contract with the Seattle Police Officers Guild. Nor would such a cut enjoy the support of the broad public, which nevertheless is quite disposed to “re-imagining” a new approach to policing here.
Second, to be effective and enduring, any newly cast police department must have the buy-in of the women and men who daily will put their lives on the line to safeguard us all. So far, virtually no one has bothered to consult the rank-and-file police officers — many of whom want a new, unbiased style of policing.
Third, our elected officials themselves are not up to this important and enormous undertaking: public safety. Mayor Jenny Durkan, a distinguished attorney, federal prosecutor and committed to racial equity and the rule of law, has demonstrated timidity at the very time when strong, clear and decisive leadership is needed. Allowing the City Council to bully Police Chief Carmen Best out of her job goes down as a failure of Durkan’s leadership.
Moreover, the council members themselves are at sea as to what to do. The council members took their reform cues in the heat of protest:
● Cutting the budget without consulting the mayor and Chief Best.
● Attacking the senior police officers’ salaries.
● Ignoring the facts that in some instances the Seattle police force is understaffed.
● Rushing to judgment on a new ordinance for would-be reforms only to provoke a veto by the mayor.
The list is written by a council populated by novices limited in public service and scope. The fact that seven of the nine council members represent only one-seventh of the voters, within their respective districts, limits their accountability. That leaves only two of the nine accountable to all voters in the city.
There is a paucity of confidence that the mayor and council can successfully resolve this conflict and produce a law-enforcement reform plan that will gain the confidence and support of Seattle citizens. That is why we need a citizen-led process — yes, that infamous Seattle process — to find our way to an honest, equitable future in which people of color are treated with respect and protected like everyone else. And that our laws are fairly enforced in a way that guarantees public safety for all.
It is in our history to do this. Citizen-led initiatives have benefited this community in a number of important ways. Three such initiatives left a legacy of lasting improvements and stand as examples of how Seattle citizens can rise to build consensus to solve major problems.
Mayor Norm Rice was elected in 1989 largely on his platform to build support for our public schools. His education summit brought together people from all parts of the city. Among the initiatives they produced is the popular and successful Families and Education Levy to support kids needing extra help.
The nationally recognized Energy 1990 Project, led by the League of Women Voters, Sierra Club, Seattle-King County Municipal League, and faculty and students at the University of Washington charted Seattle’s new course for energy conservation. Their work caused the City Council to reject City Light’s plan to purchase shares in two nuclear power stations of the Washington Public Power Supply System (WPPSS) and to fund several energy conservation initiatives that have saved Seattle ratepayers millions of kilowatts since the late 1970s.
Seattle 2000 was a citizen-led venture that involved several thousand citizens in a community planning effort. That work, sponsored by the City Council, was a recognition that top-down planning was insufficient to the needs of the day.
Keeping the public safe is government’s No. 1 job. But as our Black and brown, Asian and Native American fellow citizens attest, law enforcement has failed them with regularity over the decades, indeed over the centuries. We in Seattle can fashion a new, better and equitable approach to law enforcement and policing, but not top-down from our elected officials.
Surely, we have leaders in our community, our churches, civic and neighborhood organizations, businesses, colleges and universities, law enforcement, and the general citizenry who can come together and organize a program for change and reform. The templates are there in our history, the Education Summit, Energy 1990 and Seattle 2000.
A fairer, more effective police department? It’s up to us.