Last fall, in one of the bigger victories for the movement to defund the Seattle Police Department, the Seattle City Council awarded a $3 million contract to a community coalition to research new ways to assure public safety.
That coalition, King County Equity Now (KCEN), was a leading organizing force behind last summer’s protests against systemic racism and police brutality and one of the most prominent voices behind the push to defund the police.
But the city-funded research project has now been tossed into turmoil, with the lead researchers saying they’re “parting ways” with King County Equity Now, amid accusations against KCEN leadership of “abusive communications,” delayed paychecks and “dismissing the lived experiences of some Black community members.”
“Many teams of researchers have been and will continue to finalize this work, and we will continue to hold ourselves to the highest standards of research ethics, community accountability, and transparency,” Shaun Glaze and LéTania Severe, the co-leaders of the research project, said in a public letter Monday. “Doing this work alongside KCEN while holding on to these commitments has become untenable because the environment created by KCEN senior leadership no longer facilitates doing the work in an accountable, well-stewarded way.”
Glaze, in an interview, said their work would continue and they are committed to completing the project, with the goal of reimagining public safety.
The city’s contract to conduct the research, called the Black Brilliance Research project, is not actually with King County Equity Now. In order to sidestep requirements that the contract be put out for bid, it was awarded to Freedom Project, a Seattle nonprofit, who then subcontracted much of the work to King County Equity Now, Seattle City Council Insight reported.
That contract is now under examination by the Washington state auditor, Crosscut reported.
Glaze said that, ultimately, not much would change but that Freedom Project would now hire subcontractors directly, rather than having King County Equity Now hire sub-subcontractors.
Glaze, who uses the pronouns they and them, said they had been working without a contract, but anticipates they will be “compensated for this work out of the city contract” or another funding source.
City Councilmember Tammy Morales, whose office is managing the contract, said Monday evening she wasn’t yet aware of the specific grievances in the letter, but “the work itself remains critically important to inform policies that impact Black and brown communities.”
The City Council awarded the contract over the objection of Mayor Jenny Durkan, who vetoed the $3 million, saying she supported the concept but it was too expensive.
“I support having community-based organizations lead some key parts of the research and process. However, some of the work can be done by Executive departments and the Legislative branch for much less money,” Durkan wrote. “Also, l do not agree, as Council’s fiscal note states, that the community led process” should work toward a goal of the city having life without a police presence.
More than 100 people, some paid, some volunteers, have contributed to the research, leaders have said.
The research seeks to lay out a process of “participatory budgeting,” in which community member will guide how the city spends up to $30 million in funding. The preliminary report includes hundreds of pages of responses to a survey seeking opinions on how community members would spend funds.
Glaze, along with King County Equity Now leaders Emijah Smith and TraeAnna Holiday, presented preliminary findings to the City Council last week.
“There’s people on the ground who are the experts, and King County Equity Now, by bringing all of those experts together, has really been able to create a sense of connectivity amongst all of us,” Holiday told the council.
But these tensions were simmering under the surface. In Monday’s letter, Glaze and Severe write that they are “specifically referring to KCEN’s three-person senior leadership team and the board that would not hold the senior leadership accountable.”
That three-person leadership team is Smith, Holiday and Isaac Joy, the group’s president and CEO.
In a written statement Monday, King County Equity Now said “We take our responsibility to steward resources very seriously.”
“As we move from a volunteer initiative to a formal non-profit, we’re taking necessary time to slow-down, create and implement expanded, improved structures and processes with many more community members in the conversation,” the group wrote.