During the heat of last summer’s protests sparked by the murder of George Floyd, Seattle City Council members said the Police Department should be quickly defunded by 50%.
Mayor Jenny Durkan vowed to identify $100 million for “communities we have neglected” and said Seattle would reimagine its approach to policing.
King County Executive Dow Constantine said his administration would help dismantle “oppressive systems grounded in white supremacy.”
The Black Lives Matter demonstrations that elicited those commitments and others have mostly dissipated. But a year after Minneapolis police killed Floyd, leaders here have yet to hit all the targets they set and are still wrestling with the political and logistical implications of their promises.
Some efforts are on track, such as newly funded neighborhood hubs that are sending unarmed “community safety specialists” out on patrol, while others have been significantly delayed, like a system meant to further democratize City Hall spending decisions. The longer-term outlook is uncertain, partly because there are local elections this year.
Watching her grandchildren play in Rainier Valley’s Othello Park last week, Jeanette Frazier was happy to see one of the community patrols show up — several men with “SAFETY TEAM” written on their sweatshirts, strolling through the park, waving hello.
“It’s good to know if something happens that doesn’t look right … we can go to somebody without having to call the police,” Frazier said.
The City Council trimmed the Police Department’s resources for 2021 but approved new officer hiring. None of the touted $100 million in this year’s budget has been disbursed to date, though most is scheduled to be allocated later this year and a smaller sum from 2020 has reached the community safety hubs. Wounds from clashes over the money last year are still raw.
“I have seen change, however, I have not seen enough,” student Azaan Brown remarked during a recent Youth Town Hall on public safety with County Councilmember Girmay Zahilay.
The state Legislature has taken the lead on police accountability, rather than City Hall, where little movement has occurred. The 2021 county executive race could partly hinge on whether voters believe Constantine has moved too slowly on racial justice.
The mixed results a year after Floyd’s killing don’t mean the demonstrations have lacked impact. Much work is underway. “The money is going to get out the door,” said Tiffany Washington, a Seattle deputy mayor.
Still, organizers on the ground say engagement and collaboration among community members will be crucial to sustaining momentum.
“We want to take the village approach,” said Marvin Marshall, with the YMCA of Greater Seattle, who’s overseeing community safety patrols in West Seattle.
Defunding and investing
Though Floyd’s murder initially spotlighted an individual act of brutality, the protests quickly grew to encompass wide demands, such as moving resources from policing to community solutions.
In Seattle, most council members backed a plan from advocates for defunding the Police Department, and they asked the department to target officers with records of misconduct for layoffs, over Durkan’s objections.
The mayor and council did ultimately reduce the department’s budget by tens of millions of dollars for 2021, reversing a growth trend, with clauses allowing additional cuts during the year.
“There has been a complete mental reset … about how we define public safety,” like handling homeless encampments without using police, Councilmember Andrew Lewis said.
Yet the largest reductions were civilian transfers (911 dispatchers and parking officers), and those are still in progress. The percentage slashed was nowhere near 50%. The Police Department was allowed to exceed its overtime budget and could make more than 100 hires in 2021 to replace officers quitting in large numbers.
The council now is wavering on additional cuts, with the court-appointed monitor for Seattle’s long-standing police-reform requirements warning that the department is being stretched thin. Also, the push for layoffs has stalled, described recently by Council President M. Lorena González as “not achievable” due to union and legal roadblocks.
“That same sense of urgency is still there, but it’s butting up against other institutional actors and actions,” Lewis said.
Councilmember Lisa Herbold said she’s seeing support among her colleagues for certain ideas like using parking officers to staff the city’s new community safety department, starting to erode.
“There is a risk that the pendulum is going to swing back towards the status quo,” Herbold said, noting the outcome of the 2021 mayoral race will be pivotal (Durkan isn’t seeking reelection).
The mayor’s $100 million commitment, contained in the 2021 budget plan she sent to the council, whipped up a political tornado last year, with debates about how the money should be divided, whether the resources should come from cuts to policing and whether the spending should benefit Black people in particular. Durkan initially indicated it might, but ultimately widened the scope to communities of color.
When the dust settled, the council had split the $100 million: $30 million for programs in line with recommendations by a Durkan-convened committee of nonprofit, church and labor leaders; almost $30 million for projects residents will vote on in a new “participatory budgeting” system; $30 million to restore a fund (that Durkan had eliminated) for anti-displacement real estate projects; and $10 million for community safety endeavors.
The Durkan committee is supposed to release its recommendations this month, which should allow bidding this summer and grants by the winter, on schedule, Washington said. The panel, including representatives from organizations such as the Urban League and El Centro de la Raza, has met privately more than 20 times, posting minutes at seattle.gov/equitable-communities-initiative, and the recommendations will cite needs in business, housing, education and health.
Separately, the city will select up to 40 projects this summer to share the $10 million for community safety; 80 applications have been submitted, Washington said. The real estate dollars may not be awarded until September.
Seattle has done participatory budgeting on a smaller scale before, and the council initially said the new system could launch in 2021. That may have been optimistic, considering the large pot of money involved, a desire for community input, plans for a paid steering group and citywide voting.
The council funded community research on participatory budgeting that pulled in voices not usually heard, though a no-bid contract drew scrutiny, and the groups involved splintered along the way. The Durkan administration then developed options for the new system, with some staffers raising concerns about the Black Brilliance Research Project’s suggestions being undervalued.
Councilmember Tammy Morales now says the first round of participatory budgeting should occur in 2022 and she is proposing to release $1 million this year for the city’s Office of Civil Rights staff to begin work, including the hiring of an outside entity to run the process.
“I’m deeply frustrated the participatory budgeting process hasn’t happened yet,” she said. “That said, I think we’ve started down the right path.”
Conflict between Durkan and the council over the various strategies has spilled into community conversations in the past year. Washington, the deputy mayor, is hopeful about what City Hall’s investments will accomplish, she said. At the same time, “As a Black person, I feel very saddened that our community has suffered relationally,” she added, calling for teamwork.
Many people marched last summer because they were tired of waiting. Still, replacing the city’s top-down spending approach with robust participatory budgeting is worth taking time to get right, Sean Goode, executive director of the mentorship nonprofit Choose 180, said this month at a council meeting.
Reimagining public safety
After Floyd’s murder, Durkan and council members pledged to reimagine policing and scale up alternative responses. But their new ideas are taking shape on shaky ground, because Seattle has yet to close out its 2012 federal court agreement to curb excessive force, making scant headway in the past year amid lawsuits and thousands of complaints related to policing at demonstrations. Few of those complaints have resulted in punishment other than reprimands.
In 2019, a judge ruled City Hall partly out of compliance with the police-reform mandate because a contract with the Seattle Police Officers Guild had weakened officer accountability — especially discipline for misconduct — and he directed the Durkan administration to report back on how the city would resolve those issues. The administration has yet to do that or to start negotiating a new contract, despite the current contract having expired in December, so the problematic provisions remain in effect.
The Police Department has been led by an interim chief since September and the mayor has said that will continue through 2021. A council ban on police using chemical agents and less-lethal projectiles was blocked last summer in court.
Durkan in October created an interdepartmental team to analyze Seattle’s 911 calls and rethink the city’s public safety setup with help from expert consultants, saying some calls should be reassigned to unarmed responders over time. The team’s report was due in March.
The city in June withdrew a lawsuit challenging reforms to King County inquests that examine killings by police. Because other cities are still suing, however, the inquests remain on hold for at least three dozen deaths, including that of Seattle’s Charleena Lyles in 2017.
The mayor didn’t grant an interview for this story. A spokesperson noted that Durkan worked this past winter to strengthen the subpoena authority of Seattle’s police watchdogs and to bolster oversight during Guild contract talks by involving council and community representatives.
Meanwhile, City Hall has begun to scale up nonpolice options modestly. Durkan and the council are adding second and third units this year to a program that sends firefighters with social workers to nonemergency calls, and the council seeded the community safety hubs with $4 million in a mid-2020 budget-rebalancing maneuver.
The Seattle Community Safety Initiative hubs are a partnership that emerged from discussions last summer among organizers who were energized by the protests and alarmed by an uptick in gun violence. The organizers decided to join forces, linking the YMCA and the Boys & Girls Clubs of King County with two smaller players, Community Passageways and Urban Family.
The patrols aren’t meant to replace police, exactly. Their aim is to support youths and others where they are, nip disputes in the bud and reduce the number of police interventions.
“We’re trying to imagine healthy communities,” said Marshall, at the West Seattle site.
There are hubs in Rainier Valley and the Central District, too. Urban Family trains the safety specialists on de-escalation techniques, said executive director Paul Patu. They respond to crisis calls and can connect residents with social services.
The initiative carries credibility because the specialists are being recruited from Black and brown communities to work with those communities, Patu said, calling the initial funding a first step — with more pressure needed.
“You can’t divest for years and years and then, when all hell breaks loose, expect to throw $4 million at extremely complex issues like institutional racism and poverty” and immediately solve them, he said.
Public health crisis
King County’s promises last summer were less explicit than Seattle’s: no percentage cut from law enforcement and no dollar-figure investment in communities. But the county did declare racism a public health crisis.
At the time, Constantine and the public health department said they would adopt a new “Anti-Racism Crisis Response Bill of Rights.” That document was never created, though officials say certain principles have been incorporated into their work, including through a focus on equitable COVID-19 vaccine distribution.
In November, the County Council gave county employees two additional paid days off by recognizing Juneteenth (June 19) and Indigenous Peoples Day has holidays.
And at the ballot last year, King County voters converted the sheriff from an elected to an appointed position. While that change was years in the making, another voter-approved measure, allowing the County Council to strip duties from the Sheriff’s Office, rose directly from the Floyd protests. Council members can now consider shifting responsibility for some 911 calls.
Constantine and the council backed both measures.
“We saw the power of the movement” translate into ballot wins, despite opposition spending by the King County Police Officers Guild, Councilmember Zahilay said, noting that a community panel is now following up with recommendations for next steps.
Public health director Patty Hayes is retiring, but Constantine is seeking a fourth term, so voters will get a chance to assess his results.
He’s vowed to repurpose King County’s new juvenile jail by 2025, and the county’s budget this year boosted spending on youth diversion by more than $6 million. While the number of jailed youth has declined, Black youth are detained at higher rates.
The 2021 budget also moved more than $4 million from the Sheriff’s Office to other needs, including a program that helps people vacate old marijuana-related convictions, and earmarked $10 million for a Skyway community center.
Another $10 million will be spent through participatory budgeting on community projects in unincorporated areas like White Center.
“We have to put our money where our values are,” Constantine said.
His election challenger, state Sen. Joe Nguyen, is campaigning partly on the argument that Constantine has underinvested in communities of color. The new jail should never have opened and should be closing sooner, Nguyen has said.