Seattle budget talks are drawing to a close after months of debate about how the city should respond to the demands of this year’s massive protests against racial injustice. But the deliberations aren’t over quite yet.
Advocates with a “Solidarity Budget” coalition of many community organizations and businesses are urging the City Council to try to stop the Police Department from hiring officers next year, based on the idea that the money would be better invested in unarmed solutions.
What City Hall decides to do could indicate whether the political heat kindled by the summer’s demonstrations remains red-hot or has cooled somewhat.
While most council members vowed in July to support defunding the Police Department by 50%, the 2021 budget plan they’ve hammered out so far would fall short of that target. They and Mayor Jenny Durkan have taken steps to cut police spending for the first time in recent memory. Still, the current plan would allow for 114 officers to be hired next year.
A final vote is scheduled for Nov. 23, with committee meetings this week.
“We don’t want to see any more investments in new police officers … in a model we know is a failure,” Angélica Cházaro, with the group Decriminalize Seattle, said in a Solidarity Budget update last week, suggesting the council divert up to $10 million that would otherwise be spent on police hiring in 2021.
Though only the mayor can freeze hiring, “What the council can do is take the hiring budget … and invest it into the community,” LéTania Severe, with the group King County Equity Now, said in a news conference Monday.
Promoted by the Solidarity Budget advocates with the tagline “No New Cops,” the campaign has drawn attention from council members Kshama Sawant and Tammy Morales, who released a proposal Tuesday to redirect $9 million in officer salaries.
But that proposal has yet to win support from other council members, and the concept is unlikely to be welcomed by Durkan, interim Police Chief Adrian Diaz and others who think the force is already stretched thin due to voluntary departures and a hiring pause in the second half of this year.
The city must resume hiring in 2021 in order to replace officers who have been leaving at a rapid pace, Durkan and Diaz have said, warning about the Police Department’s ability to answer 911 calls and comply with court-ordered reforms. Absent hiring next year, attrition could shrink the force dramatically — by scores of officers.
Diaz declined to comment for this story, with a spokesperson pointing to earlier statements. “We are losing an unprecedented number of officers, which makes it even more critical that we recruit and retain officers committed to reform and community policing,” Durkan said last month.
“The mayor wouldn’t support a hiring freeze” in 2021, Durkan spokesperson Kelsey Nyland confirmed in an email Monday.
Seattle’s court-appointed police monitor, Antonio Oftelie, declined to comment on the hiring question. Oftelie has urged caution regarding reductions.
Durkan and the council are reducing police spending in various ways, reacting to the demands from protesters that the Police Department’s budget be shifted to alternative approaches and social services. Public opinion polls have shown voters split between favoring major, minor and no cuts.
The 2021 budget plan that Durkan proposed in September would transfer many civilian employees out of the Police Department, including the city’s 911 call takers and parking enforcement officers. It also would reduce spending on salaries and operations by about $20 million, mostly by eliminating positions that previously were funded but vacant.
A package of council changes proposed last week by budget chairperson Teresa Mosqueda would make other trims.
First, the package would eliminate several dozen more officer positions that the Police Department doesn’t expect to fill, per hiring and attrition projections. The department expects to hire 114 officers, lose 89 and average 1,357 on the force.
In addition, Mosqueda’s package enlarges the overtime cuts in Durkan’s plan and would request 35 out-of-order layoffs. While a city rule requires new officers to be laid off first, the council wants the Police Department to seek an exception that would allow officers with disciplinary records to be laid off first. Such layoffs would involve union bargaining.
Lastly, the package could capture up to $5 million in savings, were the police force to end up employing even fewer officers in 2021 than projected.
The package would redirect money from the police to programs recommended through a participatory budgeting process next year. In that process, ordinary Seattle residents would be asked to weigh in directly; the council’s assumption is that some money would be allocated to non-police solutions, like those King County Equity Now is working to grow.
The transfers and cuts proposed in the mayor’s plan and Mosqueda’s package could reduce the Police Department’s budget to about $340 million in 2021, down from an initial $409 million in 2020, representing a decrease of about 17%. Were all of the changes in Mosqueda’s package to occur, the department would be funded for 1,322 officers, down from 1,422.
A reduction of 100 officers is what the council sought over the summer in amendments to Seattle’s 2020 budget, including layoffs. But those changes came too late in the year to alter the force, so the council now is trying again.
Multiple council members have described the reductions in Durkan’s plan and Mosqueda’s package as significant, yet reasonable. The mayor, who repeatedly clashed with the council over the summer, has signaled she would accept the package.
“I really feel that the council’s budget actions in this area form a commitment to finding the best public-safety response,” said Lisa Herbold, who chairs the council’s public safety committee.
“I did not want to take further steps to reduce the number of officers in the Police Department beyond what we committed to over the summer,” without first scaling up alternatives, Herbold added.
Voting for a 2021 hiring freeze might interrupt the political ceasefire at City Hall and make council members more vulnerable to criticism about crime. Seattle has seen more homicides in 2020 than in any year since at least 2008, with 29 of 45 killed by gunfire. Police have fatally shot two people.
Many residents already believe “the police aren’t responding quickly enough,” said Stephanie Tschida, who chairs the Police Department’s East Precinct Advisory Council, adding City Hall should focus on discharging cops who discriminate.
“The department should look to hiring more officers now more than ever,” Mike Solan, president of the Seattle Police Officers Guild, said in an email Monday, mentioning the force’s accelerating attrition.
“Anyone that pushes the nonsensical talking point of defunding are not interested in solutions. What they are interested in is grabbing more money for activist causes that are detrimental to public safety,” Solan said.
The Solidarity Budget advocates disagree. The Police Department hasn’t served residents well, especially Black residents, so the city should pivot quickly to a more holistic response to crises, they contend.
With other essential needs going unmet, such as having a nurse in every Seattle public school, “it’s unconscionable to invest in hiring and training 114 new police officers,” Cházaro, with Decriminalize Seattle, said in an interview Monday.
The advocates have spent the past week trying to muster support at City Hall for an officer hiring freeze, with help from the Seattle’s Democratic Socialists of America chapter, which has held town halls on the city’s budget choices.
They need several additional council members to back the Sawant-Morales proposal. “I think this is truly still up in the air,” Cházaro said.
Staff reporter Sara Jean Green contributed to this story.