A conventional wisdom seems to be emerging among some of Seattle’s leaders that those who want to reimagine public safety and the role of the police are doing so blindly and going too far, too fast, without any plan.
It was only about two months ago when it seemed every company and organization in the country was sending out somber emails and social media messages stating their support for racial justice and Black Lives Matter.
Now, with the country increasingly focused on threats to the fairness of the upcoming election, the impact of the coronavirus crisis on schools and alarm over a rising homicide rate, the sweeping changes to policing that seemed within reach in June feel further away.
Locally, the Aug. 11 retirement announcement of Seattle Police Chief Carmen Best was another inflection point. Following a decision by the City Council to cut $3 million from the police budget to make a “down payment” on bigger cuts to the police in 2021, Best announced her resignation, saying she could not carry out the officer layoffs the council supported. Best is Seattle’s first Black police chief.
Best’s decision opened the floodgates of criticism toward the mostly women of color council members who led the defunding effort from those who opposed any cuts to the police in the first place. Even U.S. Attorney General William Barr and the president weighed in, with Barr saying, “This experience should be a lesson to state and local leaders about the real costs of irresponsible proposals to defund the police.”
The gleeful pile-on to defend the status quo was not surprising, but it was disappointing.
Inherent in the assumptions of many of those who believe the council’s changes are reckless is a belief that the current system is basically working.
It assumes things were fine before, as if we have a mostly functioning and fair system of policing on one side and chaos, confusion and injustice on the other. But the truth is that for many in our community, we do not and have not ever had a functioning and racially just status quo, and that real public safety is elusive for too many.
As we go forward, we need to broaden our understanding of what public safety means. As the New York University School of Law’s Reimagining Public Safety project put it, “Public safety means ensuring communities — especially historically marginalized communities — have the resources to address critical social problems, such as access to housing, food security, transportation, and healthcare, in an effective and humane way. It means empowering those communities to participate in shaping what public safety looks like. And it means minimizing whenever possible the harms that often accompany policing — such as uses of force and arrests.”
In other words, tackling the conditions that create crime versus just trying to mediate the effects and bringing the community to the table to come up with solutions. Both of which are what the blueprint for “Police Divestment/Community Reinvestment” created by community coalitions King County Equity Now and Decriminalize Seattle is trying to do.
Former Seattle police Chief Kathleen O’Toole decried the City Council’s decision to cut police funding by saying “there’s no plan” at all, but that is not true. The community-led blueprint calls for investment in efforts that address social problems, directed by a participatory budget process that puts decision making in the hands of the most affected.
Despite how some talk about it, the police are not an anti-crime vending machine. You can’t insert money and have public safety come out.
If it was, then the 36% hike in the Seattle police budget over the past five years would have left us with a commensurate reduction of crime. In fact while the property crime rate has declined about 8 percentage points over that period, the violent crime rate has gone up and down. It might surprise those of us who grew up watching crime dramas on TV to learn that according to a June report in The New York Times, only 4% of officers’ time in the cities they examined was spent on responding to violent crime. Even one incident of violent crime is too many and should not be accepted, but it is a fair question to ask if police are the ones who are making us safer.
Does the City Council have a fully formed plan put together by highly paid consultants and city staff? No. But again, how has that approach worked so far to end racial injustice in policing? It hasn’t and it’s time to try something different, even if it means that those who are used to having a seat at the table have to make the table bigger and open it up to more people.
I agree with part of what Chief Best wrote to the community at the end of June, as protests filled the streets and the community was opening its mind to the possibility of re-imagining true public safety.
Best said, “Clearly, processes and policies are no longer enough to earn and maintain the trust of the community. What is now required is a complete re-envisioning of community safety and the police department’s role in it. The only way this will be successful is if it is driven by community. To that end, SPD commits to doing this work with community.”
That commitment must be honored for us to achieve the safe and healthy community we all deserve.