Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan said Monday she wants to remove $76 million from the Police Department’s budget in 2021, mostly by transferring the city’s 911 call and dispatch center, parking enforcement officers, Office of Police Accountability and Office of Emergency Management outside the department.
Those actions would move $56 million out of the Police Department’s budget, though they likely would not result in savings that could be redirected to other needs, Durkan said. An additional $20 million could be cut in 2021 — by canceling plans to expand Seattle’s police force next year; turning some sworn positions into civilian positions; leaving certain civilian positions vacant; and reducing overtime pay associated with special events, she said.
The mayor and police Chief Carmen Best, meanwhile, slammed deeper cuts that most City Council members have vowed to pursue as irresponsible, warning large-scale layoffs could severely hamstring the Police Department.
The department’s status quo annual budget is more than $400 million, so a $76 million reduction would approach 20%. Still, the actions won’t satisfy all protesters focused on curbing police brutality. They also could prove complicated to implement, due to union considerations and other rules. The Durkan administration has not yet worked out all the details.
At a virtual news conference Monday with Best, Durkan said, “We both recognize we have a historical opportunity and obligation to re-imagine how policing can be done in Seattle.”
The city’s 911 call and dispatch center has 140 employees, nearly all of whom already are civilians rather than sworn employees, and a budget of $34 million. Seattle’s 120 parking-enforcement employees also are civilians, as are the Office of Emergency Management’s 11 employees. The Office of Police Accountability currently has sworn and civilian employees.
Durkan announced her plans in response to pressure brought to bear on City Hall by Black Lives Matter protesters and advocates who are demanding that Police Department funds be reallocated to other community needs, as well as to public safety solutions that don’t involve armed officers and to organizations that serve Black residents and other communities of color.
The majority of 911 calls are noncriminal, even more are unrelated to violent crime and officers use force disproportionately against Black people and other people of color, sometimes resulting in deaths, protesters and advocates have pointed out.
At Monday’s news conference, Durkan characterized her approach as more cautious and realistic than the council’s. Last week, a majority of council members declared support for a high-level proposal laid out by community coalitions to cut the Police Department by 50% and to repurpose the funds.
The coalitions Decriminalize Seattle and King County Equity Now have said the Police Department’s remaining 2020 budget should be cut by 50% this summer. They’ve said the department’s 2021 budget should be reduced by 50% from the status quo (the budget is $409 million this year, up 36% over five years and equal to about a quarter of Seattle’s general fund spending).
The coalitions have said the 911 call center should be removed from Police Department control, as the mayor proposed Monday. Their proposal also says Seattle should scale up community solutions and invest in housing.
The coalitions have suggested that police officers be removed from a city team that deals with homeless encampments and that other officers be laid off. Most of the Police Department’s spending is dedicated to pay and benefits.
Durkan last month proposed $20 million in cuts to the Police Department’s remaining 2020 budget as part of a broader effort to close a citywide budget hole. Most were identified in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
The council has the power to alter Durkan’s 2020 rebalancing package in the coming weeks. This fall, the mayor and council will hash out 2021’s budget.
Though seven of nine council members have said they agree with the Decriminalize Seattle-King County Equity Now road map, at least as a goal, they have yet to identify specific proposed cuts. Their next budget meeting is Wednesday, and they’re aiming to pass a rebalancing package on Aug. 3.
Durkan and Best said a 50% reduction to the Police Department’s remaining 2020 budget could require many officers to be axed right away, compromising Seattle’s ability to respond to 800,000 annual 911 calls on time and carry out other duties. Hasty actions also could jeopardize Seattle’s compliance with court-ordered police reforms, the mayor contended.
“We need to show we can rise to this occasion and make meaningful and thoughtful change,” Durkan said, accusing the council of instead making “the arbitrary decision to defund … by 50%” without enough analysis.
“This is simply not responsible. You can’t govern by Twitter or bumper sticker,” Durkan added. “Community safety is too important.”
In a letter last Friday, Best warned such reductions could require her to close the Police Department’s Southwest Precinct, shrink its homicide and sexual assault units and eliminate its gang, SWAT, traffic, theft, narcotics, vice and domestic-violence units, among others. Due to seniority rules dictated by the city’s contract with the Seattle Police Officers Guild, younger officers and officers of color would be more likely to lose their jobs, according to Best.
“Laying off 50% of the department would be catastrophic for public safety,” she wrote in an online post introducing her letter. “These 2020 cut scenarios by the council are political gestures,” she added in the letter.
In a statement, Decriminalize Seattle and King County Equity Now condemned the mayor’s remarks. “The tide has definitively turned towards divesting from (the police) and investing in real community health and safety,” they said.
“Our communities deserve better than failed, violent, militarized and racist SPD practices. At this morning’s press conference, Mayor Durkan relied on fear-mongering and outdated talking points to distract from (the plan) a majority of City Council members are supporting … Even as the mayor and the chief of police scramble to derail progress with their divisive rhetoric, we will continue to invest the time and energy in defense of Black lives.”
The Downtown Seattle Association, meanwhile, backed Durkan, advocating for a longer-term review of police roles and predicting 50% cuts would sow “chaos in our communities.”
Council pushes back
Councilmember Lisa Herbold pushed back at a council briefing Monday. The chief may obtain permission from the city’s Public Safety Civil Service Commission to conduct layoffs out of order when necessary for the Police Department’s efficient operation, she said.
The council, rather than the chief, decides whether to allocate funds for a precinct, she added. Councilmember Kshama Sawant criticized Durkan and Best for reacting to demands by Black Lives Matter protesters by threatening to fire officers of color.
Herbold is “not sure how the chief can be prognosticating on the content of budget proposals that haven’t even been developed yet,” she said.
Defunding advocates have said community organizations with social workers, counselors and other practitioners could be scaled up to respond to 911 calls now handled by officers. They’ve also pointed to nonprofits like Creative Justice, which address root causes of crime.
Durkan and Best said Monday those organizations aren’t yet ready to respond in all neighborhoods, around the clock. They said more time is needed to ramp up alternatives.
The Police Department is evaluating what duties, besides those cited Monday, could be handed off. For example, certain low-level calls could be possibly reported online and certain arrests could be replaced by citations.
The city already has some programs that dispatch unarmed civilians to deal with various issues and that could be expanded, including Police Department community service officers who can resolve low-level disputes and Fire Department social workers who can help with low-level emergencies.
Decriminalize Seattle and King County Equity Now will host a meeting for community organizations Tuesday, an organizer said on Twitter.
Durkan has proposed spending $500,000 to solicit community input this summer as she continues to build 2021’s budget. The coalitions have called on City Hall to fund a community-led budget process this summer.
“Let’s be honest — there was never a time in recent history when Black community needs have been met,” Jerrell Davis of the South Seattle youth program WA-BLOC said at a news conference held by the coalitions last week, arguing for radical change.
Durkan said Monday she hopes council members will reconsider. They shouldn’t have committed to the proposal by the advocates, she said.
“Blunt cuts won’t work,” the mayor said, promising to veto cuts that Best would consider too steep.
Several council members reiterated their support for defunding Monday while disputing Durkan’s portrayal of their stance. Rather than blunt reductions, they intend to use a scalpellike approach to defunding the department, council members Dan Strauss and M. Lorena González said. Six council votes are needed to override a mayoral veto.
González described Durkan’s remarks as spin, while Strauss said council members understand a transition period will be needed as Seattle builds a setup that can send people other than police officers to respond to more 911 calls.
“Defunding the police does not mean decreasing public safety. In fact, it means increasing public safety for many,” Strauss said.
“You will always be able to call 911 and have someone respond to your call, as is the case today,” he added. “Our metric of success at the end of this transition will be that when you call 911, you get a fast response, 24/7, with the appropriate first responder who has the resources they need to resolve the call.”