Next week will go far in determining the sincerity of our city’s rhetoric around “re-imagining,” “rethinking,” and “reenvisioning” public safety.
On Tuesday, Mayor Bruce Harrell is expected to unveil his budget proposal for next year and, with it, a reflection of Seattle’s beliefs around what ensures a city’s safety.
I usually steer clear of prognostications, but given the current national zeitgeist around a law-and-order response to rising crime, I’d be shocked if it wasn’t aligned with President Joe Biden’s recent simplistic call to “fund the police” — and the likes of other liberal cities like New York City, Los Angeles and Minneapolis, which elected to expand their police budgets in reaction to rising crime.
Of course, we don’t have to travel that far to guess what the city’s budget will include.
Certain local broadcast media continuously bombard us with sensationalistic, reductionist crime narratives. To be in favor of reasonably examining policing’s proper place seems equated with wishing for Seattle’s degeneration into a nightmarish hellscape where bullets hail down on every street corner.
Let’s stipulate this: Everyone in our city wants to feel safe, whether your politics are aggressively moderate or orthodox abolitionist.
Unfortunately, the ongoing hashtag warfare over police funding, while virally scintillating, deflects from what should be an enduring and nuanced conversation this budget cycle and all successive ones. What do we mean by safety, and what provides it?
I’ve come to view municipal budgets as manifestos of belief and political will, unequivocal expressions of our social faith.
In the case of public safety, it’s not only a belief but a traceable pattern about what ensures citywide security. So I wonder now, before we embark on proclaiming that faith, if we are asking ourselves the right questions.
I feel like I dreamt the whole two-plus years after George Floyd’s murder, when people proclaimed to have more empathy, knowledge and understanding surrounding the social impacts of our funding priorities.
Perhaps we collectively sleepwalked through adequately addressing police accountability along with prime crime predictors like income inequality, housing unaffordability and insufficient health care access.
In any case, we repeatedly awaken to a backlash over the “Defund the police” slogan but see no real structural changes to the institution of law enforcement, such as increased transparency on use of force. Nor do we see drastic reallocations from it. It bears repeating that the previous year’s reductions were primarily from removing parking enforcement, the Office of Emergency Management, and the 911 Communications Center from SPD oversight.
Even still, resurrecting the conversation around police utilization by way of our city’s budget this year is borderline impossible given our current climate. Not only do we need to address an estimated $117 million revenue shortfall, we also must replenish a police force with staffing levels near a 30-year low, while addressing a series of recent shootings and adjusting to a permanent police chief.
It’s fine to run from futile phrasing, but we must stand pat with the reality of our fiscal decisions. Budgets are not infinite. More of one allocation necessitates less of another.
“It’s all about will. You put your money behind what you value,” said Marty Jackson, executive director of the SE Network, which provides targeted outreach and youth violence prevention. “When you talk about Seattle as a whole city, there are parts of that city that are under-resourced. I hear the people we’ve voted into these positions say, ‘I value these things,’ but then when this budget comes out, we’re going to know exactly what people value.”
Between 2016 and 2020, 64% of all firearm deaths in our county were suicides, according to Public Health – Seattle & King County. One in nine Seattleites lives in poverty, and thousands of them suffer from food insecurity.
Besides being catalysts of violence, those hardships have another thing in common. None can be alleviated by policing.
“It’s not that I think we don’t need police. It’s that we need more than that. You see things working to interrupt and dismantle violence, and then the momentum is halted because of funding,” Jackson said. “There is not one be-all and end-all strategy to end the violence. There are multiple strategies based on multiple factors.”
Long-term safety can never be achieved without serious strategic investment in a portfolio of public safety solutions that complement one another. It does include effective policing. But it also requires consistent funding for violence prevention programs like Jackson’s, which reduce violent crime by 1% for every new organization formed in a sizable city, according to Princeton sociologist Patrick Sharkey. It necessitates a commitment to a 911 alternative response such as the one being piloted by our mayor and City Council. It includes something like New York City’s Office to Prevent Gun Violence, which coordinates community-based gun violence initiatives across the city.
Yes, I know this is a titanic ask, given a constrained budget and finite dollars. Our needs at this time outstrip our funds. But I do expect a budget that believes we can progress toward meeting them.