Seattle City Council proposes police layoffs but can't defund by 50% yet, members say

Council members say bargaining with the Seattle Police Officers Guild will delay layoffs until November


By Daniel Beekman
The Seattle Times

SEATTLE — Seattle City Council members have unveiled a plan to shrink the Police Department, starting with a spate of budget proposals that could reduce the force by as many as 100 officers through layoffs and attrition this year.

Most of the proposals, including cuts aimed at the department’s SWAT team, encampment-removal team and mounted unit, appear to have enough support to pass. Those moves and an accompanying resolution, stating the council’s intent to make more dramatic changes in next year’s budget and to create a new Department of Community Safety, could pave the way for sweeping changes in response to the Black Lives Matter protests that have surged throughout the city.

Seattle Police ride on a vehicle behind bicycle police during a Black Lives Matter protest march, Saturday, July 25, 2020, in Seattle.
Seattle Police ride on a vehicle behind bicycle police during a Black Lives Matter protest march, Saturday, July 25, 2020, in Seattle. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

Yet the package unveiled Friday by council members Lisa Herbold, Tammy Morales, Teresa Mosqueda and M. Lorena González won’t immediately accomplish what many protesters have been calling for, and what police Chief Carmen Best has issued warnings about: Reducing the Police Department’s spending by at least 50% and redirecting that money to other solutions.

The council members behind the new plan were among seven who, in early July, said they would support a “defunding” road map laid out by Decriminalize Seattle and King County Equity Now. The coalitions have called for the nine-member council to cut 50% of the department’s remaining 2020 budget and then 50% of the department’s entire 2021 budget.

Now the council members say they can’t achieve that outcome right away, mostly because layoffs will be delayed by collective bargaining with the Seattle Police Officers Guild (SPOG). They expect their proposed 2020 layoffs, transfers and cuts to reduce the department’s $409 million budget by about $3 million this year, assuming the layoffs won’t be carried out until November. Mayor Jenny Durkan previously identified $20 million in Police Department savings.

“This is a step forward,” said Angelica Chazaro, an organizer with Decriminalize Seattle. “But it’s going to take a lot more than this for the community to feel like real change has happened.”

The council members are promising to achieve much more in the 2021 budget, which they and Durkan will hammer out this fall, estimating their current proposals and other potential moves (including some already proposed by Durkan) could take $170 million from the Police Department next year.

Rather than begin to scale up community approaches with Police Department cuts, as initially suggested, their plan would use Seattle’s remaining emergency reserves and some COVID-19 relief dollars for that in 2020.

“Today’s proposed amendments are really a down payment on reducing the size and scope of what the Police Department responds to,” González, the council’s president, said in an interview. “There are some real roadblocks this year.”

Mixed reactions

The proposals unveiled Friday drew mixed reactions at City Hall and beyond, as the council met remotely to discuss the potential changes.

Many of the moves drew interest from other council members, including Kshama Sawant, Dan Strauss and Andrew Lewis, who also pledged support last month for the community coalitions’ defunding demands. They always knew major reductions this summer would be a challenge, Mosqueda said.

“This is the beginning of a process … we are committed to continuing in September,” Morales added.

Still, Sawant blasted the cuts as too timid and “not even close” to 50%, touting her own proposals for deeper layoffs and reductions; generations of police discrimination “cannot continue,” the Rev. Robert Jeffrey, of New Hope Missionary Baptist Church, said a news conference with Sawant last week.

Though Councilmember Debora Juarez didn’t dismiss Friday’s plan, she objected to the politics in play, having come under pressure in recent weeks because she declined to commit to a 50% defunding target without more details.

“This is what happens when you write a check you can’t cash … take a pledge without a plan,” Juarez told her colleagues. “Now you’re scrambling.”

Durkan has taken a similar stance, vowing to “reimagine” the Police Department, starting in 2021, while asking the council to slow down and voicing concern Friday about the emergency reserves idea.

“Weeks ago, Mayor Durkan and Chief Best outlined their initial plans for transforming the Seattle Police Department,” Durkan spokesperson Kelsey Nyland said in a statement. “Many council members are now acknowledging that Councilmember Sawant’s 50% cut in 2020 is not only ill-advised — it’s impossible and jeopardizes community safety.”

Public debate continues

Two months after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis first sparked demonstrations here, the defunding debate is still red hot. Protesters are marching to the homes of politicians, students are holding rallies, SPOG is collecting petition signatures and the community coalitions are gearing up for a defunding march that likely will draw thousands of people Wednesday, when the council’s budget committee may vote on the matter.

The Black Lives Matter protests, aggravated by militarized police tactics, have put the council’s deliberations under a spotlight. Hundreds of people spoke during hearings last week that lasted hours, with most backing cuts.

Fewer than half of police calls in Seattle are for criminal matters, and calls about violence are rare, defunding advocates have pointed out. They say housing, mental health care and violence-prevention programs have proven more effective than armed officers who use force disproportionately against Black people.

In a KING 5 poll of Seattle adults in June, 54% agreed with redirecting 50% of the Police Department’s budget to community groups, while 34% disagreed.

“I’m a Black social worker who knows from personal and professional experience that law enforcement is not what truly keeps a community safe and healthy,” commenter Riley Ingram-Sowell said at a Friday council hearing.

Ashley Thorp was in the minority. “I agree SPD needs restructuring,” but rushing to defund would be “reckless,” she said.

Gathered under the sun outside the Rainier Beach Community Center on Friday, young activists spoke to an energized crowd about defunding the police to help Black students.

Angelina Riley, 17, said dollars from the Police Department could be used to improve conditions at schools like hers. She said City Hall leaders seem to be listening to people like her now only because protests have made noise.

“We have to march to get heard,” Riley said at the rally sponsored by King County Equity Now.

Mobilizing on the other side is SPOG, which has launched a stopdefunding.com website, video ad and a petition. SPOG President Mike Solan recently touted the petition in an interview on Fox News, claiming Seattle could become a “lawless wasteland.” The union said Friday it had 85,000 online signatures.

At a “Defend not Defund” rally Saturday outside City Hall, David Weirich said the Police Department needs more money for crisis-intervention teams.

“Cutting the police force is going to make Seattle more dangerous,” the corrections officer said. “There’s been a lot of shootings in Seattle recently.”

Details of proposal

The package by Herbold, Morales, Mosqueda and González would withhold money from the Police Department’s patrol budget and ask Best to make do without that money by making about 70 layoffs across the board and in specific units.

The chief decides how to allocate resources, but the council would ask her to eliminate the Police Department’s mounted, schools, public affairs and homeless encampment removal units and to reduce the department’s community outreach, special events, harbor patrol and SWAT teams.

The proposals would withhold dollars from the patrol budget, rather than cut them, because there’s a chance SPOG could block the layoffs.

Also in play is a dispute over how layoffs would occur. A city rule mandates layoffs in the Police Department by reverse seniority, with new cops let go first, which Best has warned could result in more officers of color losing their jobs. Under Friday’s plan, the council would ask Best to seek a waiver allowing layoffs to be based on other criteria, such as misconduct complaints.

The package also would withhold money from the patrol budget under the assumption that there will be 30 unplanned officer resignations over the next several months, assuming the prospect of layoffs will drive some cops away.

Furthermore, it would transfer victim-support and data-analysis teams outside the Police Department and make cuts to travel, training and recruitment. Lastly, it would tap the city’s reserves and other sources to provide $17 million for public safety research and programs led by community groups.

The accompanying resolution would map out the council’s next steps on defunding, including a community-led 2021 budget process, the creation of a civilian-led Department of Community Safety and Violence Prevention and the transfer of the city’s 911 call center, emergency management, parking police and harbor patrol team outside the Police Department.

Those changes and others, including potential management reductions corresponding to officer layoffs, are included in the council’s estimate that $170 million could be removed from the policing budget next year.

Chazaro, with Decriminalize Seattle, said some immediate layoffs would send a signal that the council is willing to take on SPOG, while the subsequent moves could seal the deal.

“We’re seeing this vote as setting the stage for the fight to come,” she said.

Durkan already has proposed moving the 911 call center, emergency-management team and parking officers outside the Police Department, Nyland noted. “The mayor continues to have concerns about the council’s lack of engagement with Chief Best,” Nyland said.

The Rev. Harriett Walden, with Mothers for Police Accountability, echoed that point in a letter to the council Friday, suggesting Best has been sidelined. “We implore you to respectfully work with Chief Best,” Walden wrote.

©2020 The Seattle Times

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