Seattle splits $15M in savings from officer departures between police, other strategies
About 300 officers have left in the past 18 months, and about 100 have been hired, according to one council member
By Daniel Beekman
The Seattle Times
SEATTLE — The Seattle City Council voted Monday to split $15 million in savings related to police officer departures between the Police Department and other purposes, such as community-based programs.
The department will keep about $10 million for expenses like technology projects, while about $5 million will be invested elsewhere in what Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda described as a "hybrid approach."
The plan will partly address commitments the council made last year to decrease the Police Department's budget during the course of 2021. The vote was 8-1, with Councilmember Kshama Sawant calling for the department to keep less of the money.
The council's midyear budget legislation somewhat jibes with a plan proposed by Mayor Jenny Durkan over the summer, though a Durkan-backed request that some money be allocated for officer hiring and retention incentives was rejected.
Some council members supported the idea of using bonuses to recruit and retain officers, citing a "staffing crisis" in the Police Department. Others objected for various reasons, stressing the need for City Hall to spend on non-police strategies.
The council voted 7-2 against an amendment by Councilmember Alex Pedersen that would have allocated $3 million for officer hiring-retention incentives. A Pedersen amendment that would have allocated about $1 million for the incentives was rebuffed 5-4.
"This topic merits additional attention," Councilmember Lisa Herbold said, suggesting the question of incentives for police officers and other city employees could be revisited soon, with Durkan scheduled to send the council her 2022 budget plan for review and changes later this month.
The Police Department has used hiring incentives before: Durkan and the council approved $15,000 bonuses for new recruits on a trial basis in 2019. But that authority lapsed last June.
"As we await various alternatives to be put in place, we must also recognize the tidal wave of attrition" among officers, Pedersen said, expressing concern about long response times by the Police Department to 911 calls.
The council blocked an attempt Monday by Pedersen to introduce an ordinance authorizing the Police Department to offer hiring and retention bonuses.
Councilmember Andrew Lewis agreed the department is experiencing a staffing crisis yet said the money targeted by Pedersen is sorely needed by community-based programs.
Police officers "undoubtedly prevent gun violence" by taking firearms off the streets and away from dangerous people, "but there are limits to what police alone can achieve," Lewis said.
During the meeting's public comment section, several dozen people opposed Pedersen's amendments, asking the council to instead support a Sawant amendment that would have moved additional dollars out of the Police Department. They mentioned promises made by council members last year to defund the department.
"Cop hiring bonuses won't keep us safe. Our community organizations can and will," Travonna Thompson-Wiley said.
Sawant's amendment failed.
Monday's discussion to some extent echoed debates that gripped Seattle during 2020's racial injustice protests, when demonstrators put pressure on City Hall to move money from Seattle police to alternative solutions and social services.
Last November, Durkan and the council reduced the Police Department's budget by tens of millions of dollars for 2021, reversing a growth trend. They also cleared the department to hire new officers, however.
Since then, Durkan, the Police Department and some residents have pushed back against additional cuts. The council is no longer pursuing layoffs of officers with records of misconduct, citing legal barriers.
Police spending was back in the spotlight Monday because more officers are leaving this year than City Hall budgeted for, yielding an estimated $15 million in salary savings.
The Police Department lost 100 officers between Jan. 1 and June 30 while making 38 hires, according to a July memo. About 300 officers have left over the past 18 months, and about 100 have been hired, Pedersen said.
Durkan, who leaves office at the end of the year, has cast blame on the council, with some officers referring to the threat of layoffs when leaving their jobs. Meanwhile, the federal judge overseeing Seattle's court-ordered police reforms has warned against "knee-jerk" reductions and changes.
Durkan's plan would have allowed the Police Department to keep more than $13 million and use the money to cover various expenses, including overtime pay related to major events, additional community-service officers, COVID-19 hazard pay, technology projects, separation pay and hiring-retention incentives. Her administration initially proposed $520,000 for the incentives.
The mayor's plan would have moved about $1.5 million outside the Police Department, including $700,000 to pilot a non-police 911 response unit and $500,000 for community-based programs aimed at stopping gun violence.
In statements before Monday's meeting, Durkan urged the council to give the Police Department "the critical resources it needs to hire and retain officers," and interim police Chief Adrian Diaz mentioned an "ongoing surge in violence" as a reason to provide the department with dollars.
The legislation passed by the council Monday will allow the Police Department to keep about $10 million, reducing Durkan's proposed allocation for overtime pay and eliminating her proposed allocation for community-service officers, COVID-19 hazard pay and incentives, while leaving about $1 million to spend as the department chooses.
The council's legislation will move about $5 million outside the Police Department, including an additional $3 million for community-based programs related to public safety.
That's less than the up to $12.5 million that council members at one point indicated might be moved.
Last November, the council placed holds on up to $5 million in savings related to potential officer departures and $2.5 million in savings related to potential officer layoffs, earmarking the money for projects selected by residents via "participatory budgeting."
The officer departures happened, but the layoffs didn't. The participatory budgeting system has been delayed until 2022. Monday's legislation will remove the prior holds.
Last December, council members separately promised to cut more than $5 million in 2021 to make up for the Police Department overspending on overtime pay in 2020.
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