City Council members have begun discussing how they might shrink Seattle’s police force next year and how they might boost alternative public-safety solutions through changes to Mayor Jenny Durkan’s 2021 budget plan.
The council could use attrition, buyouts or layoffs to downsize a force that already is shedding officers, council analysts said during a budget committee meeting Tuesday. Meanwhile, the council could use cuts to Durkan’s plan to increase spending on crime-prevention services and unarmed responses, the analysts said Wednesday.
With weeks of deliberations yet to come, there are multiple options on the table, ranging from vacant-position cuts to mass layoffs. Outside the council’s virtual chambers, advocates are applying pressure.
Policing and alternative responses are hot topics at City Hall because many people protesting for Black lives are demanding that 50% of the Police Department’s budget be redirected to other needs. Most council members vowed over the summer to support the concept, while Durkan objected. Durkan instead promised $100 million in undetermined investments in communities of color, paired with Police Department reductions on a smaller scale.
An initial clash occurred in August and September, as the council sought to trim the Police Department’s remaining 2020 budget. But the council’s changes to the mayor’s 2021 plan should prove more consequential.
Durkan’s plan would allocate about $22 million less for Police Department salaries and overtime than in 2020, partly due to COVID-19 conditions, while transferring the city’s civilian 911 call center and parking officers out of the department. The department’s budget would total about $360 million, down from $409 million this year, with 1,400 police officer positions funded, down from 1,422.
The council could cut the Police Department more through attrition, because many officers have been leaving and because the department stopped hiring when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Through September, 110 officers have retired, resigned or been terminated this year, while 51 have been hired.
Even under Durkan’s plan, which would allow hiring of officers to resume in 2021, it’s unlikely the force would reach 1,400 officers. At the very least, the council could grab savings from several dozen positions unlikely to be filled, council analyst Greg Doss said. Council President M. Lorena González and Councilmember Lisa Herbold expressed interest in that option Tuesday.
Retirement incentives could accelerate the process, while deeper reductions could be achieved through attrition were the council to maintain an officer hiring freeze in 2021, blocking the more than 100 hires that Durkan would like to make next year.
The most dramatic option, proposed by Councilmember Kshama Sawant, would slash the Police Department’s budget by $170 million, which would likely require hundreds of layoffs and union bargaining. Layoffs sought by the council this year haven’t gone through.
Durkan and interim police Chief Adrian Diaz have said the city must start hiring officers again in 2021 to maintain 911 response times and comply with court-ordered police reforms. Diaz has said he will cut specialty units before cutting patrol.
Data points become talking points. Seattle’s officer-per-capita metric is down, while homicides are up this year, the Downtown Seattle Association noted in a memo. Quick response times from officers are crucial for certain 911 calls, but more than half of the calls to the police last year were noncriminal, council members have pointed out.
How much money council members cut from the Police Department could affect how much they can add elsewhere, though they also may draw from the mayor’s $100 million equity fund.
Several council members, echoing some community advocates, have said investments in communities of color should come from policing cuts, and have said the $100 million earmarked by the mayor was at least partly intended for other purposes.
Seattle already spends millions on nonpolice safety services, including youth programs, a crisis hotline and jail-diversion programs. The Police Department pairs certain officers with mental health workers, and the Fire Department has a special unit with social workers. Durkan’s 2021 plan would add a second such unit; Councilmembers Teresa Mosqueda and Andrew Lewis are interested in a larger expansion, they said Wednesday.
The council could try to add more Police Department social workers until alternative programs are scaled up, Doss said; $14 million recently allocated by the council to community-based approaches is still wending its way out of the city’s coffers.
It’s unclear what other programs the council may want to boost, partly because some council members have said Police Department dollars should be reallocated through a participatory budgeting process with residents taking part.
The community group King County Equity Now is leading a research project meant to lay the groundwork for that process.
Durkan has appointed a task force to help determine how her $100 million fund should be spent, but Councilmember Tammy Morales raised concerns Wednesday about whether that represents the right approach.
Every year at this stage, council members collectively suggest more budget additions than could ever be achieved. There are about 150 ideas in the hopper right now. Mosqueda, the budget chair, will propose a balanced package of additions and cuts next month.
Not every idea would alter Durkan’s budget directly. For example, under a Herbold proposal, meeting a basic need or experiencing a behavioral-health crisis at the time of arrest would become grounds for defense or dismissal for most misdemeanors. That could potentially save Seattle money now spent jailing and prosecuting people, Herbold said, who are almost low income and who are disproportionately Black.
The change is among several proposals supported by a “Solidarity Budget” coalition of more than 100 nonprofits, businesses and community organizations. During a news conference Monday, speakers said Seattle should divest from the Police Department, adopt a participatory budgeting process, preserve essential public services, shelter more people and advance the city’s Green New Deal initiative.
Sawant released a letter Wednesday from dozens of clergy members urging the council to reject the mayor’s “austerity budget,” partly upping the city’s new tax on big businesses and spending more on housing.
Also Wednesday, the Police Department announced a project with the Center for Policing Equity to analyze and reduce racial disparities.