Let’s look back on that Monday.
Hundreds of people flooded and subsequently overflowed the Seattle City Council chambers. They chanted “Black Lives Matter” and “Block the Bunker.” They spoke against the proposed $149 million (formerly $160 million) North Seattle police precinct that the City Council overwhelmingly moved forward for further study.
On the same day, a federal judge wedged himself between the police department and the city of Seattle’s efforts to reform it and literally laid down the law.
In a three-page decision, Judge James Robart put the brakes on in-progress legislation regarding police reform, saying that he had to approve anything before it passed. Robart is the federal judge overseeing court-ordered reforms of the Seattle Police Department in the wake of a 2011 Department of Justice investigation that found the police had a pattern and practice of excessive force.
Robert wrote that he didn’t want to veto something after the City Council approved it and had “no desire to waste the time of City Council Members,” but his verbal statements were more direct.
The Seattle Times quoted Robart saying: “The court and the citizens of Seattle will not be held hostage for increased payments and benefits,” before declaring from the bench that “Black lives matter.”
It was the first time that activist Palca Shibale had ever heard of a judge saying that. It may have been the first time that anyone in that position had said those words. It felt the opposite of what she heard in the City Council chambers Aug. 15 when the council voted seven-to-one (with Kshama Sawant, who opposed the new precinct building, absent) on a nonbinding resolution to continue to study and do a racial-equity analysis on the North Precinct station.
Fundamentally, these two issues — police reform and the proposed North Precinct station — have become linked in the eyes of many activists. They said that giving law enforcement more resources is the same as giving them a pass on the actions that landed them under federal oversight and court-ordered reforms.
For others, generally the supporters of the new structure, the building is just that — a building. And a needed one given the overcrowded conditions in the current North Precinct, which receives 30 percent of the service calls in the city and likely will see some additional personnel when the city hires the 200 new police officers that Mayor Ed Murray announced in February.
Councilmember Tim Burgess, a former journalist and police officer, noted the week prior that the City Council had voted on the project 11 times without this kind of turnout.
Councilmember Debora Juarez, an enrolled member of the Blackfeet Nation, also previously said that she did not grow up in privilege, was a woman of color and was not “afraid of a building.”
Her sentiments were not widely shared at the next hearing.
“We know that there is reason to fear a building, police officers and police brutality,” Shibale said. “It’s not just a building. We’re not talking about a house; we’re talking about a militarized police precinct with a training facility that’s going to have a firing squad.”
The North Precinct, aka “the Bunker,” aka “the most expensive police station in the country,” has become more than extra space to house police. In a city such as Seattle, where people protest more often than the Mariners have home games, it’s become a symbol of something more.
It’s become a question of priorities.
The original price tag, $160 million, is four times more than the city spent on services for homeless people in any year up until 2016, and still more than three times what it promised to spend this year after the declaration of the state of emergency.
It’s considerably more than Meals on Wheels asked for to keep delivering meals to the elderly, more than the Seattle Housing and Resource Effort (share) asked for to keep its doors open.
It’s also almost double the initial proposal for the building.
When the discussions on the new North Precinct began, the price tag was $89 million. That figure ballooned in 2015, which the then-City Council approved, and in an August hearing was cut to $149 million in a committee hearing run by Councilmember Lorena Gonzalez.
Those cuts included shaving off parking stalls — saving $7 million — and putting some construction on hold, which accounts for the remaining $4 million. According to a representative of the Department of Finance and Administrative Services (FAS), that would mean that the shell of the building would be constructed, but the training facility would not be fully fleshed out.
That seems to contradict the resolution passed by the City Council on Aug. 15, which explicitly states that “there is a growing need for training space, as the federal consent decree … mandates new training requirements for a more accountable police force…” and that the same consent decree increased the amount of training for police officers by a factor of five.
An FAS representative pushed back on additional cuts saying that they were “somewhat constrained” to redesign the building and that delays would lead to higher costs as construction currently has an inflation rate of about 5 percent a year. That means that delaying the building could cost an extra $5-to-$6 million per year.
That suggests that the aforementioned $11 million in savings is illusory because the training facility likely will be built out if the shell is constructed in the future. Without a pretty significant shift in the “crane on every corner” market, it could be more expensive to do so down the road.
That brings us back to Aug. 15.
The City Council’s (nonbinding) resolution moved the process forward, but with caveats. It both recognized that the building was necessary — the current facility is aging and has been over capacity for almost 20 years — and that the plans would need to go through the Racial Equity Toolkit to make sure that they align with the federal consent decree overseen by Robart.
In doing so, councilmembers put in writing what the community has been saying all along: The North Precinct cannot be separated from police reform, which cannot be separated from the Black Lives Matter movement.
This isn’t just a building.