After 100 personnel departures in the first half of this year, the Seattle Police Department has come into unexpected funds: over $15 million in salary savings. The department has already dipped into the savings to cover the cost associated with losing officers, like separation costs and paying overtime to compensate for a smaller crew. SPD made a proposal to the City Council’s public safety committee Aug. 10 for how it plans to redistribute that money internally.
The $15 million in salary savings only accounts for roughly 4.1% of the department’s $362,988,810 budget for 2021 and about 8% of the staff salary budget.
According to an email from SPD, “The $15M salary savings assumption is not a net savings number. The majority of this funding is needed to offset other unbudgeted costs, such as separation payouts, which are higher than normal due to the increased attrition, technology updates and event staffing.”
As per the proposal to the council, $13.7 million would stay within the department, but $1.5 million would leave the department to fund programs like the Triage One team, a new crisis response team which aims to find other ways to respond to emergency calls without defaulting to police. After activists pushed to defund, and SPD railed against lawmakers’ hesitant compliance, the department is now using some of the salary savings to, in essence, partially defund and reallocate its resources to programs that provide alternatives to armed law enforcement, the same kinds of solutions that many protestors demanded.
“We feel like a lot of the issues that we’re seeing could be solved if more money was invested in our communities and also social services,” said Tanya Woo, a lead volunteer with Chinatown-International District Community Watch.
To put the $15 million into perspective: At a minimum wage job in Seattle, taxes not considered, working 40 hours a week at $16.69 an hour, it would take over 22,468 weeks, or more than 432 years, to make that much money. However, the richest man in the world, Jeffrey Bezos, could make that money in about an hour and 40 minutes according to a salary breakdown by Insider in 2019, before the pandemic that further boosted his fortune.
In the 2021 city budget, the council increasingly funded alternatives to public safety that did not rely on police: about $12 million to the Human Services Department for community-led public safety investments and $1 million to the Office of Civil Rights to provide community-based alternatives to the criminal justice system and address the harm created by the current system. The salary savings is still greater than the funding put toward strategies that are reminiscent of activists’ demands from 2020 to redistribute what many believe to be a bloated police budget.
In the summer of 2020, as activists called to defund SPD by 50%, police pushed a group of vandals into the Chinatown-International District who then smashed through the neighborhood’s small Asian-owned businesses such as Dim Sum King, Jade Garden and others. By the next week, volunteers for the newly formed Chinatown-International District Community Watch set out to “fill in the gaps” for a neighborhood that Woo says has long been underserved by law enforcement. Woo says business owners would often wait two hours for police support and often be disappointed.
Although the hope was that the community watch would cease to exist as the need for one curtailed, the group has been patrolling the streets three nights a week for more than a year, armed with water bottles, sandwiches and an on-call social worker. They have not called police for back up in over a year.
“We used to call and ask for a social worker when someone really needed help,” Woo said. “But we realized, if the person was a minority and an officer shows up, that might invite more harm.”
According to Woo, it costs about $70 a night to put on the community watch. This covers the cost of 60 sandwiches and three cases of water. They have no budget for salary, as they are all volunteers.
Fifteen million dollars would fund the community watch for 214,285 nights. That’s over 12 million sandwiches.
The group used to be totally self-funded until they recently became a nonprofit and are now able to legally collect funds. Woo said she is currently applying for a grant that would match the $2,500 they have fundraised, for a total of $5,000, to train about 25 volunteers in CPR, AED, first aid and de-escalation as well as self-defense training for around 50 seniors who inhabit the Chinatown-International District. The neighborhood is home to over 1,000 seniors, Woo said. To get 1,000 seniors in self-defense training and 500 people in the group’s volunteer training would cost $100,000 or 0.06% of SPD’s salary savings.
By the middle of last summer, the majority of the council had been convinced that some of the police budget could be better spent elsewhere. Carmen Best, who was the police chief, pushed against divestment efforts, in line with Mayor Jenny Durkan.
“Our Seattle Police Department budget team is working to save jobs and ensure the community remains safe,” Best said in July of 2020, about a month before her resignation, and several months before council approved a 17% cut to the police budget. “We want to avoid furloughs and layoffs. But at this point, I have to be honest: There are possibilities that SPD and other departments (could) see those (budget) cuts.”
Despite fears of furloughs and layoffs, even with that 17% cut, the department has $15 million left over from what they allocated to salaries.
Woo said if she had an extra $15 million lying around, she and the community watch would probably buy some vests to be more visible at night.
“Hopefully they do something good with that money,” Woo said.
Hannah Krieg studied journalism at the University of Washington. She is especially interested in covering politics, social issues and anything that gives her an excuse to speak with activists.
Read more of the Aug. 25-31, 2021 issue.