Does the City Council Want to “Fire Half the Police Department Overnight?” Fact-Checking the Mayor and Police Chief’s Claims

by Erica C. Barnett

After announcing proposals to shift 911 dispatch, the Office of Emergency Management, parking enforcement, and the Office of Police Accountability away from the Seattle Police Department Monday morning, Mayor Jenny Durkan delivered a fiery broadside against the city council, accusing them of proposing an ill-considered plan to slash police spending without giving any consideration to what comes next. Durkan, up for reelection next year, was in full campaign-speech mode, positioning herself as the lone adult among squalling children.

“Seven out of nine council members committed to cutting the Seattle Police Department’s budget by 50 percent without a plan,” Durkan said. “This is simply not responsible. You can’t govern by Twitter or bumper sticker.” Later, Durkan accused the council of making the “arbitrary” decision to “just cut 50 percent because that’s what people put on a placard.” Police Chief Carmen Best added on, accusing the council of wanting to eliminate the jobs of half the police department this year.

But is that narrative accurate? And is it fair of the mayor to suggest that the council went to a demonstration and was convinced to cut half the police department by a protest sign? Here are some of the primary factual claims the mayor and police chief made to reporters and the public on Monday morning and an assessment of their accuracy.

Claim #1: The city council has “made the arbitrary decision to defund the Seattle Police Department by 50 percent this year in 2020 and 50 percent next year” without any plan or consideration of the impacts such a “blunt cut” would have on the city’s ability to respond to crime and other emergency calls. “The city council decided in the space of hours … that they were going to cut the police department by 50 percent,” Durkan said Monday.

The seven council members who committed to making significant cuts to the police department all made slightly different statements, so it’s difficult to generalize about what each of them, individually, believe.

However, the one thing that was unambiguous during last week’s budget meeting was that in 2020, the council intends to cut not 50 percent of the total police department budget (a scenario Durkan has used to suggest the council would immediately shut down the entire police department as soon as the budget passes in August, since half the money for 2020 has theoretically been spent) but half of the budget that will remain for the last four months of the year or about $65 million over the $20 million in cuts the mayor’s office has already proposed.

Council budget committee chair Teresa Mosqueda said as much last Wednesday, as has public safety committee chair Lisa Herbold, who also emphasized that she supports cutting the remaining police budget over a four-month period, not all at once.

Jackie Vaughn, an organizer with Decriminalize Seattle, which is working with the council to come up with a detailed plan for replacing some police functions with community-based organizations, said, “This scale-down of police will happen in a phased way, [and] the corresponding scale-up of community-based organizations would happen at the same time,” also “in a phased way, starting this year to prepare us for 2021.”

And council member Dan Strauss, who has said he supports eventual cuts of around 50 percent, called it “a false narrative to say that these approaches will not work and cannot work because they are not ready to [start] today. … The worst thing we can do is give organizations the responsibility of responding [to calls for service] without giving them the time they need to be successful.”

Like Durkan, who noted that her own proposal to cut the department by a total of five percent this year came about “in three weeks,” the council plans to come up with a plan to reallocate police dollars on a short timeline, but the cuts themselves will be phased in starting in September.

Moreover, since cuts that will involve actual layoffs will require a separate bargaining process with the Seattle Police Officers Guild (and some of the proposed changes will require approval by the court monitor overseeing the federal consent decree over the department), it’s possible — perhaps likely — that the biggest changes will be pushed back to the end of the year, possibly beyond. What the council is proposing is an acceleration, not an immediate, wholesale gutting of the department.

Claim #2: Cutting the police department means cutting cops … or perhaps an entire police precinct … or possibly no longer responding to 911 calls.

Durkan and Best have repeatedly made the claim that a 50 percent reduction to the police department’s budget would require them to “fir[e] half the police department overnight,” as Best put it Monday. At the press conference, Best said she wanted to “thank our officers for continuing to answer calls, running into the face of danger to offer aid, all while hearing a political conversation that half of them aren’t needed.” Best explained that “our budget is almost entirely personnel,” so cutting police would mean cutting an equivalent number of jobs.

The police department’s budget is actually 75 percent personnel; it has also grown tremendously over the years, usually outpacing the growth of the city budget as a whole. As Kevin Schofield of SCC Insight has demonstrated, the lion’s share of this growth has come not from adding officers but from salaries that have ballooned well beyond the average salary in Seattle, even before overtime is factored in. Simply eliminating overtime (such as the $6.3 million officers were paid for guarding the East Precinct like a citadel under siege during recent Hill protests) would reduce the department’s annual budget by more than $30 million.

As for the department being forced to “quit responding to 911 calls,” as Durkan put it, or eliminating the entire Southwest police precinct, neither activists nor the council have proposed eliminating the 911 system. (Decriminalize Seattle’s plan, for example, calls for phasing in the replacement of 911 operators with civilian dispatchers.) And as Herbold pointed out during the city council briefing on Monday, the mayor and police chief do not have the authority to shut down a police precinct; only the council can make that kind of decision.

Claim #3: The City of Seattle has already taken the steps to “rethink policing” that other cities are just beginning to consider, so there’s no reason to make radical changes.

“We have done so much of what is being called for nationally. We’re already there,” Best said. Durkan said people pointing to Camden, NJ, which dismantled its police force seven years ago, as a model for the future of policing in America have “misunderstood” what happened there. After reassessing a costly and often violent force, Camden did “the things that we’ve been doing in the last 10 years in Seattle — deescalation training, outreach, mental health interventions.” In Minneapolis, where George Floyd’s murder sparked similar calls to disband the police, “all the things that they are [proposing], we have already done,” Durkan said. “The Seattle Police Department’s deescalation training is literally the model for the nation.”

Both cities are quite different from Seattle and have indeed adopted, or are considering, some of the reforms Seattle has put in place (with mixed success). Camden’s department, in recent years, has discouraged officers from issuing tickets for minor offenses and focused on ground-level community policing tactics, with generally positive results. Minneapolis, in contrast is at the very beginning of its process, and the exact changes that will come about at the end are unclear, but it seems premature to claim that the city hasn’t committed to doing anything more than what Seattle has already done.

Moreover, while both Best and Durkan claimed that Seattle’s deescalation training is the envy of the nation, that training was not on display during last month’s protests against police violence and biased policing. Instead, the police showed up in riot gear night after night, repeatedly tear-gassed a residential neighborhood, and used weapons like pepper spray and flash grenades indiscriminately against crowds of demonstrators, causing injuries and widespread panic.

More recently, police arrested one member of the media for exercising his right to observe the dismantling of the Capitol Hill Organized Protest area and threatened another with arrest; both were exercising their First Amendment rights as well as their right, under Seattle law, to remain on the scene as reporters even after members of the public were ordered to disperse. Herbold sent a letter to the mayor on Friday demanding that she “explain your plan to remedy this unacceptable abridgement of 1st Amendment rights and improper use of City law.”

Claim #4: Cutting the police budget will force SPD to cut BIPOC and young recruits first.

“I will not sacrifice officers of color for political points,” Best said. “There are predetermined rules about how terminations occur … so many officers of color [who were hired more recently than many white police force veterans] will be out of a job as the result of this ‘last in, first out’ process.”

As Herbold pointed out Monday morning, the chief has the authority to request permission from the director of the Public Safety Civil Service Commission to make layoffs “out of order” if it’s in the best interest of the efficient operations of the department. “She’s making the argument to the public now that firing BIPOC members of the Seattle Police Department would be harmful. I agree wholeheartedly,” Herbold said. “And I know the chief can argue just as convincingly that maintaining the employment of BIPOC officers is in the interest of efficient operations of SPD.”

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 by Alex Garland

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