The Future of Policing: As protesters across the country demand sweeping changes to law enforcement, The Seattle Times is examining what that future could look like and the hurdles ahead. Today, City Hall watchers assess how Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan has handled demonstrations against police killings of Black people and wonder whether Seattle leaders are serious about shrinking the Police Department.
Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan had an important announcement to make. Journalists clustered close. Police Chief Carmen Best and City Councilmember Lisa Herbold stood behind her for support. Passersby stopped to listen.
“We’re a big city with big-city challenges, and we need a robust Police Department with officers committed to doing community policing,” Durkan said, introducing a new billboard campaign to hire more cops.
That was in February. Four months later, huge protests against institutional racism and police killings of Black people, including George Floyd in Minneapolis, have put the city’s politicians under pressure to head in the opposite direction, with Durkan’s detractors calling on her to resign for deploying chemical weapons against crowds and with many demonstrators demanding the Police Department be defunded.
The Martin Luther King County Labor Council, a powerful umbrella group that’s backed the Seattle Police Officers Guild in past contract talks, voted Wednesday night to expel the union.
“We need to defund the police so we’re not being shot and killed,” said Evana Enabulele, an organizer with Decriminalize Seattle, which is pushing the city to address public safety by investing in basic needs and social services rather than a police system with racist roots. “When you defund the police, you’re able to actually invest in programs for Black folks and give folks the things they need.”
Seattle’s leaders have promised to make changes, with the mayor committing to find an additional $100 million a year somewhere for community-backed investments, and with council members combing through the department’s budget for cuts. Still, residents across the political spectrum are questioning how Durkan has handled the protests and wondering whether politicians who previously wanted to grow the police force are serious about trying to make a sharp turn.
“We have to be willing to listen deeply and intently … and we have to be willing to honestly examine our individual roles and how government has played a role in systemic racism,” the mayor said in an interview Monday.
Activists say the protests have built momentum for a policing revolution, while skeptics expect that to dissipate. In the meantime, Durkan and council members must rebalance a 2020 budget ravaged by the coronavirus pandemic, and must negotiate a new contract with the Seattle Police Officers Guild (SPOG) this year — stark choices to make.
“This is an unprecedented moment,” said Bishop Reggie Witherspoon Sr., a Central District pastor who’s talked with the mayor and police Chief Carmen Best in recent days. “I don’t have all the answers. But when you sign up to be a leader, you have to lead.”
Tensions between the mayor and police-accountability advocates have simmered for years. Lawyer and educator Nikkita Oliver, a high-profile voice among protesters demanding that 50% of the Police Department’s budget be redirected to community-backed programs, was an opponent in Durkan’s 2017 mayoral campaign.
At the time, Durkan said she could shepherd the Police Department into compliance with a federal consent decree that she’d signed as U.S. attorney, requiring the department to curb excessive force and biased policing. She alienated some advocates in 2018 when she agreed to a contract with SPOG that didn’t implement certain disciplinary reforms.
There were some accountability advances in the long-overdue SPOG contract, and most council members sided with Durkan, including Herbold and the council’s current president, M. Lorena González.
“I’ve been working on police reform issues for 30 years,” Durkan said, touting progress Seattle has made. “Last year, there were 17,000 calls by SPD [about people in crisis] and 98% of the time, no one used force.”
U.S. District Court Judge James Robart later raised concerns, citing a legal battle over the firing of an officer who punched a handcuffed woman, and the dispute has put Durkan at odds with activists and advocates in the past year.
“She will tell you what she wants you to hear and say the right words, but she’s not going to do anything about it. She’s going to sit on it,” said Emma Catague, a longtime police-accountability advocate.
The city’s initial response to the protests generated more heat. Business owners were upset the Police Department didn’t stop vandalism and looting in the Chinatown International District and downtown on May 29 and May 30. The department repeatedly deployed tear gas, pepper spray and blast balls into Capitol Hill crowds.
Petitions calling on Durkan to resign or be removed collected thousands of signatures, and three council members — Kshama Sawant, Tammy Morales and Teresa Mosqueda — also suggested she step down.
“We can do better, both with respect to the arson and destruction downtown and in how the events played out on Capitol Hill,” said Jon Scholes, Downtown Seattle Association president.
Meanwhile, the Police Department’s ability to discipline officers for misconduct during the recent demonstrations will be hamstrung by the SPOG contract, “adding insult to injury,” said Anne Levinson, who’s served as a Seattle judge, deputy mayor and police watchdog.
Durkan and Best adjusted the Police Department’s tactics, taking steps to prevent clashes while asking the city’s civilian-led accountability agencies to undertake investigations and reviews. Marches have been held without incident. At least 99 other cities also used tear gas, noted Stephanie Formas, Durkan’s chief of staff.
Former King County Executive Ron Sims praised the mayor’s steadiness during an unbelievably chaotic period. “She is fearless,” Sims said. “I think she has every single skill you need for this time.”
Yet Durkan may never recover from the Police Department’s initial response, countered Cliff Traisman, who served as director of intergovernmental relations under then-Mayor Paul Schell during the 1999 World Trade Organization protests that soured voters on Schell. Durkan has dismissed the idea she would step down, rebuking her critics for distracting the city. Could her 2021 campaign take a hit?
“Mayor Durkan cannot expect to logically convince voters later of something they don’t believe now with regard to the appropriateness or preparedness of police actions these past weeks,” said Traisman, now an environmental lobbyist. “The window for doing that may have already closed.”
Another challenge: Protester-occupied blocks around the Police Department’s East Precinct, hyped as a dangerous zone by conservative media, have drawn President Donald Trump’s ire, stirring worries about attacks by Trump supporters. “My biggest concern right now is: Could [that zone] become a place where violence escalates because of actions by the president?” Durkan said.
The mayor began meeting with Black protesters and Black community leaders on May 31. Days later, Durkan scrapped a curfew and City Attorney Pete Holmes withdrew a motion to wrap up the consent decree. But the clock is ticking as Durkan and the council delve into a police budget they approved in November.
Call is resonating
There are reasons to doubt City Hall will radically revamp the Police Department anytime soon. Durkan and the council must contend with SPOG, whose members in February elected a more aggressive president over an incumbent who’d built ties with advocates. Residents and business owners pushing for more cops have faded from view, but they haven’t disappeared.
“The Fire Department can’t go into the homeless camps without the Police Department. It’s too dangerous,” said Eugene Wasserman, president of the North Seattle Industrial Association. “People in my group depend on the police. If the city could figure out a better way, they’d be happy. But they see the city as inept.”
Policing changes may need to navigate the notorious “Seattle process” of prolonged studies and panels. Durkan repeatedly has rejected the notion the police budget should be reduced by 50%. “Even though Seattle is very liberal, there is still a sense of caution,” former Councilmember Nick Licata said.
“That’s just not going to happen,” Sims said. “When I call 911, I don’t want them telling me I am No. 5 in the queue.”
Yet there also are signs that a breakthrough may have occurred in local politics. Seattle recently relaunched a community-service officer program staffed by unarmed civilians, and the mayor has championed a new Fire Department unit that sends social workers to help people on the streets.
“We’ve got to have a vision for a new kind of policing,” Durkan said. “We can decrease the number of times, when someone calls 911, that you need somebody with a gun to show up.“
Dozens of prominent organizations, ranging from churches to nonprofits and community groups, have signed on to Decriminalize Seattle’s demands. Sawant, Morales and Mosqueda have said they want to cut the Police Department’s budget by 50%, and their colleagues, including Herbold, have agreed the department’s role should be curtailed. They may try to start by reallocating a smaller percentage of funding.
“I think the call for defunding the police is resonating” as residents wake up to the department’s $409 million budget, said Riall Johnson, a political consultant. “People are realizing: ‘Why are we paying so much?” for a department that mostly responds to nonviolent calls and that uses force more often against Black people.
Nor are activists starting from scratch. Enabulele and some other organizers with Decriminalize Seattle were part of the “Block the Bunker” movement in 2016 that halted City Hall’s plan for a $150-million new North Precinct.
In recent years, the mayor and council have directed millions of dollars to jail diversion and millions more to restorative justice programs for young people.
Programs that steer youth away from the criminal justice system are yielding results, said Choose 180 executive director Sean Goode, arguing smart, purposeful divestment from policing makes sense.
“The consent decree feels a lot like my weight loss journey… I now have a Peloton at home and work out every day. But I have not lost a single pound, because my behavior hasn’t changed.”
Seattle voters last year rejected council candidates who railed against homelessness and street crime, and SPOG may be losing clout. The Labor Council, which lent SPOG political cover in 2018, now is urging City Hall to “prioritize non-police investments” in addition to kicking the union out.
“Running out of grace”
Some political veterans say the mayor can chart a course ahead.
“Everybody is going to second-guess here. The key for me is whether you can drive people in a direction,” Sims said. “When she rolls out what I think she wants to do, I think we will be pleased.”
Among cuts the mayor will soon propose to close Seattle’s coronavirus-induced budget gap, those to the Police Department will be largest, Formas said Wednesday.
Downtown businesspeople want the city to keep adding cops for patrols but could support more non-police interventions for people with mental health and substance abuse issues, Scholes said.
“There’s a thoughtful conversation to be had about what we’re asking police officers to do and whether they’re equipped to achieve results,” said Scholes, who believes Durkan politically “is going to be just fine.”
Witherspoon, who leads Mount Calvary Baptist Church, is calling for teamwork. “I believe [Durkan and Best] are both good women who need us to rally around,” he said.
Thursday will mark three years since police fatally shot Charleena Lyles in her Magnuson Park apartment; Seattle police have killed others since then, including two people in the past two months.
“Black people are tired. My congregants are running out of grace,” Witherspoon said, saying a plan must be drawn up before “pandemonium breaks loose.”
Some activists are pinning their hopes on the council, rather than the mayor. Durkan has created division by picking certain Black community members to meet with while shutting others out, said Enabulele, who helped bring the mayor away from a June 3 meeting to face a throng of protesters outside City Hall. “I don’t trust her,” Enabulele said.
Though Durkan will propose a rebalanced 2020 budget this month and a new 2021 budget in September, the council holds the purse strings, Johnson noted.
Morales has received “tens of thousands” of emails from constituents, she said. Sweeping changes to the Police Department’s budget are more likely to come in September, “but it will be incumbent upon the council to deliver on the demands we’re hearing,” Morales added.
Protesters are watching closely.
“It’s going to be a long summer,” Enabulele said. “People are going to keep up the pressure and stay in the streets until they get what they need.”