For all the heated rhetoric about Seattle defunding the police, both from activists demanding it and the police union decrying it, the key take-away right now is this: Seattle is not defunding the police.
Not by half. Not by a quarter. It’s not even clear whether this first phase of proposed cuts to the city’s police force, up for a full City Council vote on Monday, would reduce the current number of officers out on the street at all.
That’s the headline. The city isn’t defunding the police.
Instead, what the council is doing is chipping away in a sort of haphazard fashion — a little from the SWAT team here, a little over there from homeland security — all adding up to a cut of about 50 street-level cop positions in a department of 1,428.
They’re also not filling some posts lost to attrition, and cutting other positions that don’t fight crime, like community outreach and public relations. That’s about another 50 positions, for a total reduction of 100.
This is hardly radical stuff, especially in a time with government revenue plunging. From a money perspective, what the council is doing is whittling police spending by a grand total of three million dollars. There’s about $170 million left to be spent in 2020 of the department’s $409 million yearly budget. Mayor Jenny Durkan had already proposed COVID-19-related savings of about $20 million. So a $3 million cut on the remaining $150 million means the City Council is actually defunding the police, this year, by … 2 percent.
A bureaucracy the size of the Seattle police can surely deal with a 2% cut without collapsing. Or without Seattle descending into a “lawless wasteland,” as the police union keeps warning about.
OK, so it’s not the sweeping “defund the police” that was advertised. But is it a good idea?
Council members say it’s just a “down payment,” a blueprint if you will, and they plan to do more serious cutting and overhauling for next year’s budget. That’s fair — that would at least give more time for nuance and detail, such as a deeper look at what community-based justice programs might be funded instead.
So far, though, some of the cuts just seem petty.
For example the council voted to cut the pay of Chief Carmen Best and some other command staff by 40%. Best currently makes about $285,000, and the council voted 6-3 to cut her salary to the lowest band in her job category: $172,000.
Why? Nobody offered a rationale. Is Best being punished? If so, for what? Is the council trying to get rid of the city’s Black police chief? They ought to have the courtesy to explain this to her directly.
“I have nothing but respect for her, as an individual and as a woman of color working in this space,” Council President M. Lorena González said the next day. Funny way of showing it.
The other problem with the cuts is they aren’t going to reform the police — least of all in the approach officers take to Black and brown citizens. Nor are most of the cuts aimed at streamlining or restructuring services. They’re scattershot, seemingly so council members can say, “Hey, we’re stabbing at the beast.”
Example: They’re cutting two cops from the Harbor Patrol. Sure, fine — but are the boat police a flashpoint in race relations, or in overpolicing? Ditto the horse unit, where they’re cutting four officers. Also gone will be five officers and a captain from the “Community Outreach” team, which speaks at events and holds neighborhood picnics and the like.
I’m not seeing how any of these low-hanging cuts get to the root of the matter. There are two overarching complaints about Seattle police: One is the misuse of force, often against Black and brown constituents. And two is that they often don’t come in a timely fashion when people call 911. The council’s actions so far don’t seem to squarely address either one.
“You can’t reform something that is fundamentally broken,” González also said.
That sentiment is one reason some cities, such as Camden, New Jersey, have opted to dismantle their police departments and start over from scratch. Go big, to change its culture in a sweeping fashion. What we’re doing so far — laying off a few cops here and there, arbitrarily cutting salaries — would seem to keep the same basic police framework, only make it worse.
There was a moment during the council debate this past week when the police themselves sent up a flare. The council had just considered Kshama Sawant’s plan to fire the entire force in November (which got voted down). The prosecutor’s office picked that moment to announce that they think police have solved the first deadly shooting, of a young Black man, in the Capitol Hill Organized Protest zone from earlier this summer.
The investigating Seattle cop said that, due to the “no-cop zone,” he couldn’t collect evidence at the scene, such as bullet casings. So he used interviews, video streams from businesses and the past investigatory work of another officer to identify someone he believes to be the shooter. The suspect has now been charged with first-degree murder in the June killing.
No one from the police spoke at the council meeting. But it was like they were out there saying: “Sometimes you need us, remember?”
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