Promises to defund the Seattle Police Department (SPD) by half and provide coronavirus relief to households in need may be temporarily scuppered in a dynamic period of negotiations as the City Council was forced to contend with the limits of its own authority and an uncooperative executive.
City councilmembers wrestled with a package of amendments that aim to do everything from limiting city executives’ pay to selling off police horses and stables. However, the cuts fall far short of the tens of millions of dollars that community organizations are advocating to remove.
Overall, the potential reductions to the 2020 police budget are estimated to total between $2.6 million and $3 million, drawing criticism from Councilmember Kshama Sawant on Aug. 3.
“One does not have to be a mathematician to realize that $2.6 million is nowhere near 50 percent,” Sawant told her colleagues.
The Monday meeting capped off a long series of discussions begun July 31 when councilmembers worked through roughly most of the amendments, raising questions of how narrowly they could tailor their budget requests to meet the demands of their constituents.
For example, efforts to reduce the number of SPD officers by cutting the department’s budget could mean the newest, least expensive officers are jettisoned first. Chief Carmen Best pointed out previously that would mean getting rid of the most diverse cohort of SPD recruits, something Councilmember Lisa Herbold noted was entirely up to Best.
While the City Council can signal their preference — in this case, removing officers with “sustained complaints” first — they cannot compel Best to pursue “out-of-order layoffs,” meaning layoffs based on criteria other than seniority.
“Chief Best must make this request herself, and the resolution makes it clear that council believes that she should,” Herbold said.
Councilmember Debora Juarez took exception to the request embedded in section 5 of the draft resolution, saying that it would not pass constitutional muster and that the language of the draft resolution was divisive.
Personnel changes like the ones that the City Council is considering take time and will likely go through a negotiation process with the Seattle Police Officers Guild (SPOG). Even if layoff notices went out on Aug. 1, it would take several months before any salary savings were realized, according to staff.
Another approach by councilmembers was to target individual units by cutting their funding specifically. Councilmembers Tammy Morales and Sawant took that approach with the Navigation Team, a blend of police officers and outreach workers that has long drawn the ire of homelessness advocates for its role in the sweeps of people experiencing homelessness.
Proponents of the team say that it tries to build relationships over time and offer shelter to people surviving outside. However, a shift in the types of sweeps happening in Seattle meant that the vast majority were for “hazards or obstructions,” meaning police could clear people without the 72-hour notice that is supposed to accompany cleanups.
Members of the homelessness services community have been pushing not only to remove police from the Navigation Team but to end it altogether, saying that the $8.4 million team does not address concerns about sanitation, health care or criminal activity.
“The premise of the project is flawed,” the Seattle King County Coalition on Homelessness wrote in a statement calling for personal asks to the council and mayor. “The Nav Team was created to provide the Executive branch with a tool that gives the appearance of activity in response to complaints about visible homelessness.”
Over the weekend between the two meetings, Mayor Jenny Durkan threw another wrench in the council’s efforts by vetoing $86 million in coronavirus relief that the City Council had passed a week before.
The money, meant to support food security, housing programs, small business support and help for immigrant and refugees, came from emergency and rainy-day funds. In a statement accompanying her veto, Durkan argued that depleting those two reserves this soon in a long-term crisis was “irresponsible.”
“If 2020 is any indication, no one can responsibly project that Seattle will not have additional emergencies this year and next,” Durkan wrote in a public letter to the council.
Budget chair Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda countered hours later, vowing to bring the spending package back in an effort to override the mayoral veto.
“Rent is due today. Federal cash assistance ends today. And today the Mayor vetoes COVID= relief for small businesses and families,” Mosqueda said in a statement. “In the midst of an economic contraction that is four times worse than the Great Depression, we can’t afford to take a wait and see approach when Seattle families’ health, jobs and housing is on the line.”
The City Council will formally go through SPD-related amendments at its Aug. 5 committee meeting. At last blush, a final vote on the 2020 budget shifts is expected on Aug. 10.
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Ashley on Twitter @AshleyA_RC.
Read more in the Aug. 5-11, 2020 issue.