Along the Alki Avenue bike path, just up from the West Seattle beach and across the street from a fish and chips place, a makeshift memorial of candles and dried flowers marks where Tilorae Shepherd lost his life to a man with a gun.
Shepherd, 22, died after an argument about fireworks. He was one of 31 people killed this year in Seattle.
More troubling than violent crime, Lt. David Terry told a recent Alki Community Council meeting, was the Southwest Precinct’s staff shortage. There are sometimes as few as four to five officers at night, down from a previous minimum of nine. That’s to patrol 17 square miles.
So it goes with public safety in Seattle. As Interim Chief Adrian Diaz decried the “unrelenting pace of violence,” the ranks of the police department thin to historic lows.
On Nov. 2, Seattle voters will get a say in the direction of City Hall, including influencing everything from the police budget to accountability and street-level policies. Candidates in city races on the ballot loosely align along very different views of law enforcement, and point to divergent futures.
The murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis officers last year forced a long overdue reckoning about police use of force across the nation. State laws changed tactics and equipment.
In Seattle, protests underscored the work here was not complete, even though a federal probe found a pattern of excessive force a decade ago. To this day, the department remains under federal oversight to eliminate unconstitutional policing.
A fierce urgency fueled demand for positive change. But somehow, things got off track.
While Seattle protests were largely peaceful, a few descended into violence and chaos. When CNN asked Mayor Jenny Durkan about a standoff on Capitol Hill, she joked that it may turn into the “summer of love.” Two people died there after someone in the police chain of command ordered the evacuation of the East Precinct.
In four months last year, the Office of Police Accountability was contacted 18,000 times with concerns about SPD crowd-control tactics.
Community groups such as ACLU of Washington, Chief Seattle Club, NARAL Pro-Choice Washington and the Seattle Human Rights Commission signed on to demands to defund Seattle police by 50%. The majority of city council members agreed, including M. Lorena González and Teresa Mosqueda, who are on the ballot this year.
Former Chief Carmen Best resigned rather than work with the cuts, which included her own salary.
In the end, the City Council cut the 2021 police budget by about 20%, or about $63 million, from the year before. The damage to morale was done. More than 300 officers left in the last 18 months, an “unprecedented exodus,” said Chief Diaz. Only about 100 have since been hired.
In exit interviews, former officers cited lack of support from city leaders as a reason for their departure. The federal judge overseeing the Department of Justice consent decree said law enforcement in Seattle faced a “deepening crisis.”
“We definitely missed a huge opportunity,” said Victoria Beach, a lifelong Central Area resident and chair of the African American Community Advisory Council. “The murder of George Floyd woke up the world. But we fouled it all up here in Seattle, Washington. Our city is a mess, and I don’t know if it can be repaired any time soon.”
Beach wants a police department that is held accountable for its actions. But the fact that she wants a police department at all makes her opinion fodder for intense disagreement.
The next mayor and city council will choose between a range of two basic options: replenish the ranks and push reforms even further, or take more dollars from law enforcement to fund housing and other social services.
No matter who is elected, the next mayor must nominate and the council confirm a new police chief. A new contract with the Seattle police union, which has long sought to link discipline and accountability with richer benefits, must be negotiated.
The choices are stark. The candidates don’t mince words.
Community organizer Nikkita Oliver, seeking citywide council seat Position 9, tweeted last Jan. 1: “Seattle Police are tyrannical. Defund SPD by 100% at least and invest in communities.”
Her opponent, Sara Nelson, who co-owns Fremont Brewing and received The Times editorial board’s endorsement, says defunding the police “by an arbitrary percentage” won’t reduce crime or end racism. She favors holding the department accountable and funding it to meet public safety needs.
After declaring her support for defunding the police by 50% last August, mayoral candidate and current City Council President M. Lorena González backtracked and supported a smaller cut. Just last month, she actually tried to blame police management for failing to keep officers on the force.
The council made meaningful budget reductions last year that didn’t compromise public safety, she argues. Now, it’s time to build on those reductions to “systemically transform public safety services.”
Former City Councilmember Bruce Harrell said he decided to run for mayor in part because he didn’t like City Hall’s direction on public safety. He would focus on retraining and changing the culture of SPD.
He faced criticism for approving a 2018 contract with the Seattle police union that some said gave ground on police accountability. González also approved the contract.
“Fixing SPD to ensure public safety for ALL residents — especially Black and Brown Seattleites — has always been my priority, even when the issue wasn’t popular,” he told the Urbanist. Harrell is endorsed by The Times editorial board.
In a recent Crosscut/Elway poll of likely voters, the police department and crime were topped only by homelessness — which has many connections with public safety — as top concerns.
Strong majorities in the poll favored arrests and prosecutions of misdemeanors instead of decriminalization. Respondents also supported hiring and training more police rather than defunding SPD’s budget to tackle social issues.
It’s up to Seattle voters whether City Hall will enact policies that reflect these priorities, or seek to upend the basic concepts of what law enforcement looks like, and how it functions.
Mayoral candidates Harrell and González explain their ideas on policing here. On Tuesday, we will publish responses from candidates for Seattle City Council Position 9 and on Thursday for Position 8.