Editor’s note: As protesters across the country demand sweeping changes to law enforcement, The Seattle Times examines what that future could look like and the hurdles ahead.
As the Seattle Police Department reckoned with federal oversight in recent years, it sprouted a series of new civilian positions: a chief operating officer, a chief information officer, a bevy of data analysts.
The department has justified these and many other new positions as necessary to modernize the force, win community trust and satisfy the terms of a 2012 settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ). A deal with the police union in late 2018 added measures on officer discipline and oversight while considerably raising wages.
The revamping of SPD helps explain how its budget swelled by more than $100 million over the last five years, a 36% increase, even as the number of police officers barely budged. City spending on public safety, a broader measure that includes fire and other departments, has risen at a faster clip than almost any of the nation’s largest cities through 2018.
The city now faces a very different reckoning: After years of pouring money into police training and accountability initiatives, city leaders face calls from protesters to dismantle SPD or cut its funding. That pressure is compounded by the coronavirus pandemic, which has created a vast hole in the city budget.
The demands of critics, in daily demonstrations that began after the death of George Floyd last month in Minneapolis police custody, heighten the uncertainty over SPD’s reforms. The department is still under the supervision of a federal judge. Now its budget is the subject of an “inquest” by the Seattle City Council.
Barely a year ago, the federal judge overseeing the DOJ settlement praised SPD’s reforms on use of force, crisis intervention and detentions as “national models,” while criticizing its progress in holding officers accountable to allegations of misconduct.
“I think some money has been spent well and goes towards some of the reform efforts, but I don’t think all of it has been fruitful,” said Jay Hollingsworth, who served on the board of the city’s Community Police Commission from 2013 to 2019.
Hollingsworth, an advocate for police accountability, praised anti-bias and de-escalation training but also pointed to the police shooting three years ago of Charleena Lyles, a pregnant woman shot seven times as she lunged at officers with a knife, as a failure. He believes in “giving the police less to do,” and supports redistributing police resources to help alleviate poverty and improve education opportunities.
The retooling of SPD has been years in the making. In 2015, the department added a civilian chief operating officer to oversee everything from purchasing and hiring to crime analysis and professional standards. A new chief information officer would help harness technological tools to comply with the DOJ settlement. An “academic curriculum development professional” would help design training techniques for SPD. The training budget was boosted by $1.4 million a year.
In subsequent years, SPD built out a data platform and staffed it with analysts to monitor use-of-force incidents, complaints and other metrics. It added training for police officers engaging with homeless people both through Navigation Teams and working independently to clear streets and sidewalks — but not without controversy.
SPD’s increasingly large budgets reflect more than simply adding police resources, with rising costs for pensions, health care and insurance — along with funds shifted between departments — playing a role. Even with the addition of civilians, sworn officers still make up 77% of SPD’s personnel costs, according to a City Council presentation last week.
But SPD has struggled to recruit and retain police officers in the past few years. The number of sworn officers stood at 1,369 by the end of 2019, making the force just 1% larger than it was five years earlier. Both Mayor Jenny Durkan and police Chief Carmen Best have said the contract with the Seattle Police Officers Guild was crucial to recruiting and retaining officers.
The SPD union pact, which authorized wage increases and back pay, has been a major contributor to the surge in spending. In 2019, 44 SPD employees had base salaries in excess of $200,000, compared with nine employees making at least that much five years before, according to city records reviewed by The Seattle Times.
The department’s actual spending varies from its budget and these figures weren’t readily available. Still, the city’s spending on public safety — including police and fire — mirrored the police budget.
The city shelled out $686.9 million for public safety costs in 2018, according to its audited financial statements for that year, the most recent available. That works out to about $925 per Seattleite. While other cities may count public-safety spending differently, Seattle’s rate per capita ranked sixth among the 30 largest cities in the U.S. in 2018, according to data from Merritt Research Services.
Seattle’s 32% hike in public safety spending over five years was the second-highest among these 30 cities, after Houston, according to data compiled by Merritt.
The roots of Seattle’s police overhaul reach back to a federal civil rights investigation into SPD in 2011 following a long string of violent incidents in the community. Durkan, who was the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of Washington at the time, had been involved in attempts to reform the department for more than a decade, and backed the request by community leaders asking for DOJ intervention.
In 2012, the DOJ issued a report that found Seattle police routinely used excessive force — as often as one out of every five times force was used — and outlined a disturbing pattern of biased policing without making a formal finding on that issue, saying it lacked sufficient data. The DOJ sued, and the city and SPD entered into a settlement agreement — also called a consent decree — that year that remains in effect today.
U.S. District Judge James Robart, who oversees the settlement, has found the department in substantial compliance in all but one key area — officer accountability. The city asked the court to end federal oversight anyway, but withdrew that request in the wake of George Floyd’s killing in Minneapolis.