The Seattle City Council cut millions out of the Seattle Police Department’s (SPD) 2020 budget over the objections of Mayor Jenny Durkan and Chief Carmen Best Aug. 10, capping off months of tense negotiations and terse, public exchanges.
Within hours of the votes, news broke from Dori Monson of KIRO and Brandi Kruse of Q13 that Best intended to resign, effective Sept. 2.
In an Aug. 11 press conference, Best and Durkan were unvarnished in their praise for the department and their condemnation of the council’s actions and purported targeting of Best and her command staff’s salaries.
“How else am I supposed to feel?” Best said. “There is a whole roomful of department heads in here, and not one of them was named. Just me.”
On Monday, councilmembers voted to decrease the cut to Best’s salary and discussed looking at executive pay across the city.
Best also said that she was leaving, in part, because she didn’t want to oversee layoffs.
Best, a nearly 30-year SPD veteran, was the first Black woman to run the police department. She was originally passed over for the job for outside candidates, but community uproar got her back on the shortlist.
However, the relationship between the City Council and chief seemed strained in recent months as officers’ response to the massive Black Lives Matter uprising came under intense community and legal scrutiny, particularly with regards to the use of chemical irritants and other “less lethal,” but still painful, crowd control measures used on protesters.
The budget changes that councilmembers approved included cutting Best’s salary, although by considerably less than the 40 percent approved the week prior when council passed a budget amendment to cut into command staff pay for the rest of 2020.
Through a series of provisos, the City Council also took aim at defunding the Navigation Team, a blend of police officers and outreach workers that has drawn the ire of homeless services professionals over its short existence, as well as other specialized police teams.
In her closing comments, Councilmember Lisa Herbold noted that the council was withholding two months’ worth of salary for every position targeted for reduction in case the money was needed. The Seattle Police Officers Guild has demanded to bargain over “out of order” layoffs that the council has said it wanted.
In all, the council’s actions are meant to reduce the size of the police force by roughly 100 officers. Critics say that will deplete the force of its most diverse class of officers, many of whom are relatively new hires.
Durkan and Best spoke out against those reductions in an Aug. 4 press conference, saying that they had already identified as much as $20 million in reductions in 2020 and $76 million that could be removed from the police budget in 2021, $20 million of which were cuts and $56 million were functions that could be moved out from under SPD’s purview, such as the 911 emergency call system.
“We think the council is looking in the right places, but in the wrong year,” Durkan said.
Durkan continued to have concerns about the council’s approach to cutting Best’s salary and the Navigation Team, wrote Kelsey Nyland, a spokesperson for the Mayor, after the vote.
“It is unfortunate that Council has refused to engage in a collaborative process to work with the Mayor, Chief Best and community members to develop a budget and policies that respond to community needs while accounting for — not just acknowledging — the significant labor and legal implications involved in transforming the Seattle Police Department,” Nyland wrote.
The cuts themselves are not a 50 percent “defunding” of the police department demanded by advocates. The demand was born out of the protests that followed the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers.
Protests and marches continued nonstop over the summer, mostly consistent in their demands to defund police, free all protesters and reinvest in community organizations.
Groups like Decriminalize Seattle and King County Equity Now worked with council to outline their plan to cut the remainder of SPD’s 2020 budget by 50 percent. They did succeed in getting a majority of councilmembers to commit to the concept of defunding and investing in community organizations to create a new model of public safety.
Part of that will mean funding a participatory budgeting process and community-led research into policing alternatives.
Councilmember and Budget Chair Teresa Mosqueda celebrated the council and Council Central Staff’s work to rebalance the budget in response to community concerns.
“It would have been easy to rubber stamp the Mayor’s proposed budget package, but instead, we rolled up our sleeves and did the hard work,” Mosqueda said.
Alongside the cuts the City Council also passed a nonbinding resolution memorializing its intentions for further changes to the police department going forward, which is important as a starting point for 2021 budget negotiations that kick off in September, Herbold said.
“Through agreeing to trying to work toward a 50 percent reduction, I hope we’ve begun a partnership with community that has brought us to this place where we are now, and has created a pathway and a plan to reductions in 2021,” Herbold said.
Councilmember Kshama Sawant, who was vocal in her opposition to an “austerity budget” that also called for cuts in other departments, ultimately voted for the resolution. However, she pointed out, the council will need more than “nice words” to satisfy community demands.
“The City Council has to be accountable for what they actually do, not for the promises they make,” Sawant said.
Even with Monday’s vote, the Council’s work is not done.
Not long before the morning meeting, Durkan announced that the budget shortfall had grown by another $26 million under newly revised revenue projections. The City Council announced Monday its intent to take up a veto override to use $86 million from the rainy day and emergency funds to provide immediate COVID relief to Seattle small businesses and households. Durkan had expressed that she wanted to reserve the funds in case things got worse.
“Last month, Mayor Durkan urged that the Council delay its vote to spend 90% of the rainy day and emergency funds understanding revenue projections for this year could worsen with additional forecasts,” reads a press release from the Mayor’s Office announcing the additional cuts.
Mosqueda pointed out at the Monday meeting that the $214 tax on large corporations passed earlier this year is meant to help replenish those funds.
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. 12-18, 2020 issue.