Last week, as the Seattle City Council trimmed about $3 million from the Police Department’s budget, leading to the unexpected retirement of police Chief Carmen Best, its members also unanimously passed a resolution stating their intent to create a new civilian-led Department of Community Safety and Violence Prevention.
They said its formation would be “informed by the process and principles” laid out in a 13-page document — a “blueprint for divestment” — authored by King County Equity Now and Decriminalize Seattle, two community coalitions that have led the call to defund the police. Generally, the plan is to strip funding and responsibilities from police and shift them to community organizations.
The council declared the resolution to be in the “spirit of the life and legacy of civil rights leader John Lewis and his commitment to ‘good trouble’ …”
However, what some veteran police reformers — including the city’s last police chief, Kathleen O’Toole — see in the resolution and the council’s action and apparent direction is just trouble.
“There’s no plan,” said O’Toole, who was appointed chief by former Mayor Ed Murray in 2014 and served until 2017. She made Carmen Best her deputy and saw the department through some of its most difficult times as it developed and implemented reforms stemming from a 2012 consent decree between the city and the Department of Justice.
“This council is making irresponsible decisions based on knee-jerk reactions,” O’Toole said from her home in Boston, where she was that city’s first woman police commissioner and now consults on police reform internationally. “I don’t blame Carmen for leaving.”
As the City Council looks to cut hundreds of millions of dollars from the Police Department’s budget this fall — seven of nine members have pledged to cut the Police Department’s $400 million budget by half — that blueprint is the closest thing to a plan that the council has released about how to do so.
Written this summer by the two coalition groups, in the wake of Seattle police’s often violent crackdowns on protests against police brutality, it calls for eliminating 2020 funding for travel and training, for implicit-bias training, for data-driven policing, for overtime pay and for new equipment.
And it is virtually silent on how the city will deal with its response to violent crime with a force it wants reduced immediately by 100 officers — the same number a consulting firm said needed to be hired immediately three years ago.
“This phase will be followed by deeper cuts to SPD’s budget to come in the 2021 budget cycle,” it says. It calls for funds to be reinvested in private nonprofits through a participatory budget process in which community members weigh in directly on how they want the money spent.
The council announced its intentions to transfer the city’s 911 communications, parking enforcement, harbor patrol and Office of Emergency Management out of the Police Department, saying those and other changes would remove $170 million from the department next year. That would get them about 80% of the way to its goal of defunding the Police Department by half. But much or most of that money wouldn’t be freed up for reinvestment, it would just transfer it to other city departments.
Mayor Jenny Durkan has identified about $76 million in cuts to next year’s budget, most of which overlap with the council’s proposals to transfer services to other departments, but has faulted the council for seeking the deeper cuts without a plan. Durkan has also pledged $100 million in new funding for programs for the Black community but has offered no details on where the money would come from or where it would go.
Councilmember Alex Pedersen, one of two council members who has not committed to the 50% defunding goal, said he supports shifting duties away from the Police Department, but his colleagues were doing the process backward.
“To do a percentage in advance is the cart before the horse, first you need a plan then the percentage will be known after that plan is finalized,” he said.
Every other member of the City Council — M. Lorena González, Lisa Herbold, Debora Juarez, Andrew Lewis, Tammy Morales, Teresa Mosqueda, Kshama Sawant and Dan Strauss — declined repeated interview requests for this article.
As for the organizers whose ideas the council has adopted, they acknowledge it’s a work in progress, but say they have not intention of letting up.
“Have all the details been worked out? No, of course not, but at the end of the day are you going to have yourself in alignment with a system that has existed for years?” said Sean Goode, director of Choose 180, a youth diversion program. “I find myself at this critical moment wanting to be sure that our voice is on the right side of history.”
O’Toole is skeptical that the council has thought through its actions — clearly they didn’t anticipate Best’s sudden departure when they cut her salary and forced her to begin the process of laying off officers.
“It did not seem like there was a thorough analysis of the issue,” said Pedersen, who voted against the cuts. “It seemed hasty and whenever you make hasty decisions there are unintended consequences; and the chief announcing her sudden retirement was due partly to that poor choice to cut those salaries.”
O’Toole and another longtime police watchdog, the Rev. Harriett Walden, wonder what else they haven’t considered.
For instance, O’Toole said it’s foolish to do away with the department’s Navigation Teams, which sent police officers and social workers into unauthorized homeless encampments to offer services before clearing them out.
“They’re talking about social workers going to do all the work with the homeless,” O’Toole said. “Come on. You know how dangerous those camps can be. They’re going to end up calling officers anyway.”
As for implicit-bias training, it’s required by the consent decree, O’Toole said — a 76-page document she doubts the pro-defund forces on the City Council have spent much time with, given it takes up more than 600 entries on a federal court docket and entails tens of thousands of pages of pleadings, policies, reports and orders compiled by a court-appointed monitor.
“I’ve tried not to meddle, but when I came here we had a council that had thoughtful people and we had healthy and considerate relationships, even when we didn’t agree,” she said. “I just think this council sadly has resorted to sound bites and knee-jerk reactions, and lost a police chief as a result.”
“I hope they stop and give some thought to what they’re doing before they entirely destroy all the years of hard work put into the consent decree,” she said. “I truly hope they give it some thought.”
Nikkita Oliver, a former mayoral candidate and an organizer with King County Equity Now and Decriminalize Seattle, said that continuing to spend money on implicit-bias training presumes that the training works.
“Part of this is about acknowledging that you’re not just going to train implicit bias out of individual officers, but it’s also about acknowledging that this whole system is rotten,” she said. “We can’t train our way out of racist policing.”
Seattle police, Oliver said, “do not prevent harm, they merely respond to it, and worse still, they bring harm to many.
“The Seattle Police Department has a long and storied history of anti-Black racial violence and of repressing social protests from the 1960s to the past few weeks and it’s time for a new vision,” she said.
Skeptical of defunding
Walden, the co-chair of the Citizens Police Commission (CPC), a body set up by agreement when the city signed the consent decree, was outraged at what she considers the City Council’s “inconsiderate” treatment of Best.
She said the CPC has taken no official stance on the move to defund the police, but that discussions are in progress. But, speaking as a longtime police reformer and founder of Mothers for Police Accountability, Walden is more than skeptical of the City Council’s direction.
“Defund the police sounds like a good promise, but there’s no plan,” she said. She’s also doubtful of its success, pointing to stalled efforts to disband the Minneapolis Police Department in the wake of the George Floyd murder. The council there voted to dissolved the department, but are finding it difficult.
In the resolution, the Seattle City Council states it “has every intention to comply with the Consent Decree obligations” as it trims the 2020 budget and says it “will continue to work with the court … to achieve Consent Decree compliance.”
However, U.S. District Judge James Robart has already issued a restraining order to prevent implementation of an ordinance passed unanimously by the City Council barring the SPD from possessing or using certain crowd-control weapons, like tear gas or 40-mm projectile launchers. While the impact of the ordinance on the consent decree is under review, Robart, in issuing the order, said “the court agrees that by removing all forms of less lethal crowd control weapons from virtually all police encounters, the [new ordinance] will not increase public safety.”
In his most recent order in the case — issued four days before the council voted to slash the department’s budget — Robart pointedly reminded the City Council to “remain mindful” that the consent decree is in “full force and effect” before passing legislation that might affect it.
O’Toole said the fact that the department remains under Robart’s oversight “is the only reason I don’t feel total despair.
“Right now, the judge is one of the few adults in the room,” she said.
Walden said some “neophyte” City Council members — she didn’t name names — have not taken the time to learn about the decades-long fight that she and others have undertaken to make meaningful, lasting reforms to the SPD. Until May 25 — the day George Floyd was killed — she thought they’d made big progress.
“We haven’t been good at telling our story,” she said. “I can’t help but point out that a lot of other people thought so too, right up through May 24.”
Jill Leovy, a senior fellow at the University of Southern California Annenberg Center and the author of ‘Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America,’” has argued that Black neighborhoods are often both over- and underpoliced — harassed over minor complaints, while homicides go unsolved.
“Like the schoolyard bully, our criminal justice system harasses people on small pretexts but is exposed as a coward before murder,” Leovy writes. “It hauls masses of black men through its machinery but fails to protect them from bodily injury and death. It is at once oppressive and inadequate.”
Leovy, in an interview, was loath to weigh in on the funding debate but noted that most people have few interactions with police; while a small few call frequently. Those who call frequently, perhaps because of domestic violence or a family member having a mental health emergency, are often left out of the debate.
“Most people who call the police repeatedly have no voice, they have no power, they’re rarely heard in this conversation,” she said.