The vast majority of the Seattle Police Department’s budget is dedicated to personnel, and roughly $40,000 a year is spent on crowd-control weapons like tear gas, pepper spray and blast balls, City Council members heard Wednesday as they began what they described as an “inquest” into police spending.
Council members have pledged to dive deep into the budget in response to ongoing demonstrations against police killings of Black people. They are also responding to demands by some protesters that Seattle “defund” the Police Department by 50% or more by redirecting money from policing toward more effective community services and needs.
“Our intent is to achieve change, to use the tool that is the budget process to initiate that change,” said Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda, who chairs the council’s budget committee. “We’re going to do this together with community organizations, especially Black-led community organizations.”
Looming over Wednesday’s discussion: The hole the months-long COVID-19 economic shutdown is ripping in the city’s expected tax revenues. Mayor Jenny Durkan was set to submit a mid-year re-balancing plan to the council this week, but her administration has delayed it amid the surge in protests for racial equity.
The Police Department’s budget this year is $409 million, accounting for about one-quarter of the city’s general-fund spending. That’s more than Seattle is spending from its general fund this year combined on arts, culture, recreation, health and human services, neighborhoods and development.
Four of the nine current council members voted last November to approve the 2020 budget; Councilmember Kshama Sawant objected, as she has every year since since entering office, criticizing the budget as inadequately addressing inequality and racism.
Within the Police Department’s budget, $306 million, about 75%, is allocated to employee salaries and another $30 million, about 7%, is allocated to overtime pay, City Council and Police Department staffers said at Wednesday’s budget committee meeting, during which the council also resumed talks on a proposal to tax big businesses.
That legislation, championed by Sawant and Councilmember Tammy Morales, was shelved last month for procedural reasons related to Washington state’s COVID-19 emergency. Now back on the table, it would have companies with more than $7 million in annual payroll pay a 1.3% tax to fund public housing and green-infrastructure programs.
Mosqueda described Wednesday’s presentation on the Police Department’s budget as revealing, with “detail we haven’t seen before.” Any attempt to dramatically reduce Seattle’s police spending will need to deal with the Police Department’s 2,000 sworn and civilian employees, the presentation clearly showed.
“That is by far the largest expense,” council staffer Greg Doss said, with the Police Department’s 668 budgeted patrol officers and 107 budgeted patrol sergeants alone accounting for about $120 million in salaries and benefits.
Most public commenters who called in to speak before the tele-conference urged the council to carve into the Police Department they said has for generations subjected Black people to violent and discriminatory treatment and has in the past week deployed war-like weapons against diverse crowds of mostly peaceful protesters. No Police Department brass were at the meeting to push back; the Seattle Police Officers Guild said this week the department needed more money, not less, to boost training and combat crime.
“I personally myself have been a target of the Seattle Police Department’s harassment … so defunding them by at least 50% is generous,” said commenter TealShawn Turner, who described herself as a Black Seattle native and a union worker.
“They have brutalized Black and brown communities for as long as time,” Turner added. “It’s not right and it needs to stop. By defunding them, we can reallocate those funds back into the Black and brown communities.”
Another commenter, neighborhood-clinic doctor Valentina Warner, said policing dollars should be diverted to address her patients’ everyday needs. “Our mental-health care system is a disaster,” Warner said. “Increase funding for social services, so that we don’t need police.”
Mosqueda, Sawant and Councilmember Tammy Morales have said they want to reduce the Police Department’s budget by 50% and reinvest those dollars, though they haven’t set a clear timeline for that target. Their colleagues have agreed that at least some cuts should be made, seemingly united on a desire to halt spending on crowd-control weapons and military-style equipment.
Tear gas and pepper spray have repeatedly engulfed downtown and Capitol Hill streets since demonstrations began over the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis. But removing that line item from the Police Department’s budget won’t take the council very far toward a 50% reduction in spending.
The Police Department spent only $31,172 on such crowd-control weapons last year, according to Wednesday’s presentation, and only $56,529 in 2018. The overtime pay that officers receive while working security and directing traffic at football games, concerts and marches dwarfs the cost of the weapons.
Councilmember Lisa Herbold recommended City Hall travel down two tracks simultaneously: One toward some short-term reductions in the Police Department budget, and another toward “reimagining” how the Police Department serves the city.
Perhaps Seattle could start sending social workers, health care workers and conflict resolution experts to many 911 calls, rather than police officers, she said. Sawant, meanwhile, warned against incremental reforms. “We have to recognize the police force … cannot be re-imagined or rebranded out of existence,” she said.
The budget committee will learn about approaches in other cities next week, take in more data on June 24 and hear proposals from community advocates on July 1, Mosqueda said, pointing to next year’s budget as the place to make lasting changes.