Proposals to reduce the Seattle Police Department by up to 100 officers through layoffs and attrition won unanimous City Council support Wednesday, while proposals to reduce police-command pay and stop removing homeless encampments also cleared hurdles.

Final votes on the moves are still to come next week, and the council rejected a push to “defund” the Police Department’s remaining 2020 budget by 50% and reinvest that money, as many Black Lives Matter protesters have urged.

The amendments passed in a committee Wednesday are expected to save only about $3 million this year (the Police Department’s annual budget tops $400 million), partly due to the assumption the layoffs wouldn’t be carried out until November. In order to provide community organizations with $17 million to start scaling up nonpolice solutions right away, council members intend mostly to borrow money, rather than redirect police funds.

Still, council members said they were sending a message as they voted 9-0 on the midyear budget amendments that Mayor Jenny Durkan and police Chief Carmen Best have vehemently opposed.

“We’re not going to be bullied into doing nothing,” Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda said. “It’s important to show community members that we hear them, that we’re working towards the same goal and not just saying no.”

In a statement Wednesday, a Durkan spokesperson criticized the council for voting to reduce the force, cut Best’s salary and remove cops from the city’s encampment-removal team after only “a few hours of discussion.” The council has been discussing the Police Department’s budget for two months.

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“Chief Best and Mayor Durkan have laid out our vision on rethinking community safety, reducing SPD’s budget and investing in community,” spokesperson Kelsey Nyland said. “The mayor and chief believe that we can and must transform the Seattle Police Department, but unattainable and unworkable ideas are the wrong approach.”

Seattle City Council votes to defund team that removes homeless encampments, in victory for activists

Several council members have called their 2020 moves a “down payment” on more sweeping changes they intend to make soon, with Mosqueda suggesting the Police Department’s 2021 budget could be reduced by as much as $170 million. Some details behind that number are still very murky, and no sure thing.

Across Seattle, people are watching closely. A “Defund” march to City Hall drew perhaps 1,000 people Wednesday, with supporters demanding that policing dollars be reallocated to other public safety approaches, housing, social services and programs led by Black people.

“The community needs resources. We need funding that we actually control,” Elijah L. Lewis said at the crowded Wednesday rally, which was partly organized by a group Lewis is involved with, King County Equity Now.

Demonstrators sit on Fourth Avenue facing City Hall on Wednesday, listening to speakers calling for defunding of the police.  (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)
Demonstrators sit on Fourth Avenue facing City Hall on Wednesday, listening to speakers calling for defunding of the police. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)
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The Seattle Police Officers Guild (SPOG) meanwhile, has scheduled a “Stop Defunding” rally for Sunday and has been collecting petition signatures.

SPOG vowed in a news release “to awaken the ignored majority of Seattle citizens and to rebuke the reckless, radical concept of defunding.” The union’s president has said the council could make the city a “lawless wasteland.” SPOG was recently expelled from King County’s main labor organization.

Durkan and Best, in a news conference Tuesday, asked the council members to hold off on additional Police Department cuts until the 2021 budget, which they and the mayor will start hashing out in September. Durkan already has identified about $20 million in Police Department savings to help balance the city’s coronavirus-wracked 2020 budget.

The mayor said she and Best want to reimagine policing by relieving armed cops of various duties. But she said the proposed layoffs would result in diverse, new recruits being let go or would be tied up for months in legal wrangling. She said the layoffs also would disrupt police operations.

“I would just urge the council again, take some time,” Durkan said, accusing council members of overpromising by agreeing last month to support the 50% defunding demands and then delivering only modest initial cuts.

Council members, who have tangled with the mayor on multiple matters recently, swept aside those arguments, arguing urgent actions were needed to respond to a historic civil rights uprising. Councilmembers Alex Pedersen and Debora Juarez, who have come under pressure because they didn’t pledge last month to defund by 50% in 2020 and 2021, said they could support the smaller steps.

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“The mayor does not like our plan. She has a strong ideological opposition to our plan,” Council President M. Lorena González remarked, saying most Seattle residents support defunding. “ As a result, she is spreading misinformation and fear.”

A Public Safety Civil Service Commission rule requires police layoffs to occur according to reverse seniority, which would result in new cops, including many officers of color, losing jobs, Durkan and Best have said. Council members have said an exception allows layoffs out of order when the chief shows that’s necessary.

Durkan and Best have said the process would be difficult. Employees laid off out of order each would be entitled to individual hearings, the layoffs would require bargaining and litigation could ensue. But the council members, who want the layoffs to target specific units and officers with sustained misconduct complaints, expressed confidence that could be done.

“What I heard yesterday is that it’s too hard to make out-of-order layoffs,” Councilmember Dan Strauss said. “What I’m hearing loud and clear [from constituents] is ‘we want this hard work to be done.'”

Details and debate

The chief decides how exactly to allocate her resources in her department, which employs about 1,400 officers. The amendments passed Wednesday would withhold money from Best’s patrol budget and ask her to adjust in various ways, such as:

  • Lay off 32 patrol officers
  • Eliminate encampment removal, horse patrol and schools teams
  • Reduce public affairs, community outreach, special events, harbor patrol and SWAT units
  • Assume 30 unplanned officer resignations

The proposals would withhold dollars from the patrol budget, rather than cut the dollars, in case SPOG were to block the layoffs or delay them until 2021.

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Council members said they intend to preserve funding for encampment outreach and trash removal, though Durkan questioned Wednesday how they would expect the city to address “significant public health or public safety concerns” and to keep sidewalks, alleys and streets clear.

Additionally, council members voted unanimously to pass these amendments that would make other cuts:

  • $36,000 from implicit bias training
  • $80,000 from patrol
  • $50,000 from travel
  • $800,000 from recruitment and retention

In a 6-3 vote, council members also passed an amendment that would reduce the wages of about a dozen Police Department commanders, including Best.

Councilmember Kshama Sawant proposed a blunt $54 million cut to the Police Department that she said would make good on the 50% pledge. She argued that would be “the best way to defeat Mayor Durkan,” but none of her colleagues backed her attempt.

Council members did pass an amendment that would transfer victim-advocates outside the Police Department, and they may pass an amendment next week that would transfer the city’s 911 call center outside the department.

Durkan last month announced a rough plan to reduce the department’s budget by $76 million in 2021, mostly by transferring the call center, parking-enforcement officers and some other services out of the department.

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Last week, council members said they would draw down the city’s rainy day fund by $13 million to help supply community groups with money for research and capacity building this year. Criticized by Durkan for that strategy, they now say they want to borrow the cash from a Construction and Inspections fund.

More than half of 911 calls in Seattle last year were noncriminal, and years of reform efforts have failed to stop police killings, defunding advocates note.

Taking to the streets

Under a hot midday sun at Wednesday’s march, which began at King County’s controversial new youth jail, people held signs with slogans such as “Defund SPD” and wore t-shirts listing their demands.

A large crowd turned out Wednesday to call for defunding police in Seattle. The City Council voted in favor of reducing the Police Department by 100 officers. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)
A large crowd turned out Wednesday to call for defunding police in Seattle. The City Council voted in favor of reducing the Police Department by 100 officers. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)

A large banner called for “Justice for Oscar Perez Giron,” who was killed by a King County deputy at the Sodo light-rail station in 2014. Volunteers for an effort to recall Durkan gathered contact information from supporters. 

Resources should be shifted to organizations that address mental health and homelessness, protester Brittanee Walker-Williams said, describing the warnings by Best about layoffs hitting new cops of color as “trying to scare us.”

Given the city’s social needs, “it should be a pretty easy decision instead of us having to come out and protest for it,” Walker-Williams said.