by Erica C. Barnett
(This article originally appeared on The C is for Crank and has been reprinted under an agreement.)
Monday morning, city council president Lorena González and public safety committee chair Lisa Herbold said they were both briefed last week by police chief Carmen Best on what the chief had previously described as “credible threats” to the Seattle Police Department East Precinct in early June, and that the chief described the threats as generalized threats to government buildings in cities up and down the West Coast rather than a specific threat to bomb, burn down, or otherwise damage the East Precinct. Best cited the alleged threats in June as one of the reasons police needed to keep protesters away from the building using tear gas, pepper spray, and eventually physical barricades in the area that became known as the CHOP.
“I had heard that it was general threats to all city facilities, which would obviously include the police precinct, but it would also include City Hall and sewer facilities and all other facilities owned by the city of Seattle,” González said. “These were generalized threats, as opposed to specific threats to the East Precinct, that were garnered as the result of what would seem like a generalized bulletin that was received by police chiefs of all cities, not just Seattle.”
However, a spokesman for the FBI in Seattle said the threat was specific to the East Precinct, not a general threat against city buildings. “While I cannot get into specifics of threats, it would be accurate to report we did share intelligence regarding threats to the East Precinct,” the spokesman said. And the mayor’s chief of staff, Stephanie Formas, says the police chief “was provided both direct information from the Seattle FBI Special Agent in Charge confirming that, not only were government and law enforcement facilities known targets along the West Coast — including Seattle; but that the East Precinct was specifically included in these threats” as well as the West Precinct in Belltown. Formas pointed to an apparent arson attempt on June 12, when a man from Tacoma was arrested for lighting a fire outside the precinct building. That fire was quickly put out by people in the area.
A month after the heads of the city’s Race and Social Justice Initiative “change teams” sent a letter to Mayor Jenny Durkan asking her to substantively address the demands of protesters, Durkan has responded, with a letter outlining many of the same actions the mayor has highlighted in her press appearances since George Floyd’s murder sparked protests against police violence in late May. The letter from Durkan summarizes what she sees as actions she’s taken to address protesters’ demands; the fact that it does not directly respond to the demands in the letter suggests that she still does not take those demands entirely seriously, and sees incremental changes, such as additional staff for the groups that investigate police misconduct, a sufficient response to the protests that continue to rage across the city.
The change teams are groups of city employees tasked with monitoring the implementation of the city’s Race and Social Justice Initiative. The letter from the team leaders asked Durkan to defund the Seattle police by 50 percent, protect and expand community safety investments in Black and Brown communities; stop removing homeless encampments and cut police from the city’s Navigation Team; and release all jailed protesters, among other demands. The list is less radical than the demands made by some protesters, and the effectiveness of the change teams is a matter of debate within the city, but their action items were similar enough to protesters’ high-level demands that the mayor’s response can serve as a proxy response to those demands.
Durkan’s letter, which is dated July 6, first listed a number of actions the city has already taken, including: “A full review by [the four police accountability authorities] of the crowd management policy,” an investigation by SPD’s Office of Professional Accountability of misconduct complaints related to the protest, a new policy (proposed and passed by the City Council) banning police from covering their badge numbers with “mourning bands,” and a request that the city attorney not charge protesters arrested and jailed for minor offenses, such as obstruction and failure to disperse.
The mayor also described a number of future actions that have already been announced, including $100 million in still-undefined investments in BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color) communities, accelerating the transfer of several city-owned properties to community groups as part of the Equitable Development Initiative, cutting $20 million from the police department budget (a proposal that, in reality, would cut just $5 million more than the reduction Durkan had already proposed before the protests), and a greater role for “community leaders” in negotiating the next police contract.
None of these action items are a direct response to the three primary demands from protesters, which are: Defund the police by 50 percent; reinvest in Black and Brown community safety; and release all protesters who have been jailed.
The mayor’s letter, like many of her recent remarks to the press and public, also shifts the lens from concrete problems in Seattle’s police department to “centuries of system[ic] racism” in the nation as a whole. (The letter even characterizes the protesters’ demands in these terms, saying that demonstrators are “demanding action to rethink policing, acknowledge and dismantle institutional racism and invest in true community health and opportunity.” This change in focus makes problems that are largely local — racist, violent practices by members of a police force that is overwhelmingly white, suburban, and conservative — seem insurmountably big, the kind of deep-rooted national problems that it will take decades or centuries to dismantle.
While it’s self-evident that both systemic and institutional racism are the root causes of specific instances of racism among Seattle Police Department officers, the protesters aren’t demanding that the city redress all the injustice in the United States, or “undo … centuries of system[ic] racism … overnight,” as the mayor puts it in her letter. They’re making three specific demands, and they have not received a response.
Durkan appears to believe that change will come from the state or national level. “In order to create true, transformative change, we will need the State and Federal government to act too,” she wrote, calling on the legislature to pass police union reform and Congress to enact the George Floyd Justice In Policing Act. She’s hardly alone in this commitment to incrementalism; from Austin to Portland, mayors have resisted calls for major cuts to police budgets or a radical commitment to depolicing, instead favoring vague-sounding ideas like “rethinking” or “reimagining policing,” phrases that appear six times in Durkan’s letter.
Erica C. Barnett has covered Seattle politics since 2001 for print and online media. Read her latest at The C Is for Crank.
Featured image: the CHOP (Photo: Susan Fried)