When protesters took over a section of Capitol Hill later called the CHOP, or Capitol Hill Occupied Protest, they had demands. An amorphous accumulation of people with different experiences, backgrounds and goals, not all of those demands were considered “universal.”
But three were.
Free all protesters. Invest in Black communities. Defund the police by 50 percent.
That last — defund the police — became a point of hot debate.
“We need a plan, not a percentage,” wrote Councilmember Debora Juarez in a press release that affirmed her desire to see the police department reformed but questioned across-the-board cuts.
“We will not support any effort to abolish the police department or cuts that will compromise the chief and [the Seattle Police Department’s] ability to serve the people of Seattle,” said Mayor Jenny Durkan at a press conference.
A group of predominately white Seattleites demonstrated in front of City Hall to defend the police, not defund them.
The protest, scheduled from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., ended within a few hours.
But calls to defund the police, even to cut them by 50 percent, were more nuanced than they appeared, as advocates from Decriminalize Seattle and the King County Equity Now organizations explained at a teach-in Tuesday they held via Facebook Live and Zoom.
“When we say cutting the police department budget by 50 percent, we know the police department has already been spending money,” said Jackie Vaughn, executive director of Surge, a reproductive justice organization.
Instead, the plan as outlined to the City Council the next day was to cut the SPD budget by 12 percent each month beginning in September, and then to look at reductions in the next budgeting cycle to the tune of 50 percent. That would mean more than $200 million shifted out of the police budget, although not necessarily in direct savings — certain functions such as 911 calls would be moved out of the department, but still funded.
The cuts from the best-funded department in the city would come as Seattle stares down a vast funding shortfall created by the loss of tax revenues created by the coronavirus shutdown coupled with the city’s response to the disease.
Chief Carmen Best and Durkan decried calls to slash the police budget as irresponsible without a plan in place to ensure public safety. They instead announced $76 million in savings from the police department in the 2021 budget, later and less than advocates had demanded. Of that, only $20.5 million would be actual budget reductions. The other $55.7 million would be transferred out of the police department budget by moving the call center, parking enforcement and Office of Emergency Management to civilian oversight.
“Building a new kind of 24/7 response network will take time and community engagement,” Durkan said. “As we do that, we can also reimagine how the Seattle Police Department itself will function.”
Community members say that moving resources out of policing and into existing programs will, eventually, stem crime by meeting people’s material needs.
That process will not happen overnight — advocates are asking for $500,000 to fund a youth-led study over the summer to identify what the community needs and then scale up organizations to address them.
In the meantime, the City Council has proposed other solutions to reduce the amount of police interaction with marginalized groups.
Andrew Lewis, councilmember for District 7 that encompasses Magnolia southeast through Pioneer Square, put forward legislation for an alternative kind of policing modeled after the “CAHOOTS” program pioneered by the White Bird Clinic in Eugene, Oregon. CAHOOTS, which stands for “Crisis Assistance Helping Out on the Streets,” provides a mobile crisis intervention team in the Eugene-Springfield metro area.
Each team has a medic and crisis worker. It’s similar to the Health One program in Seattle where specially trained firefighters and civilian specialists respond to low-acuity calls in the downtown and Pioneer Square area where an armed police officer would be less effective.
According to the city, 42 percent of medical calls received by the Seattle Fire Department fell into that category, meaning that a full roll-out of a fire engine was both expensive and unnecessary.
The White Bird Clinic's CAHOOTS has existed since 1989 and costs the city just over $1 million for 24-hour service.
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 of the July 22-28, 2020 issue.