OPINION: We Need to Divest From Police to Improve Public Safety

by Tammy Morales

When we talk about “public safety” many people imagine law enforcement officers. Police respond to calls for assistance, the thinking goes. They investigate crimes and protect property. But public safety means so much more. And a law enforcement system that is rooted in white supremacy can’t keep the public safe. 

The community conditions that keep us all safe don’t rely on the police. Those conditions rely on a shared ability to thrive. Community safety means greater housing stability, affordable medical care, food security, opportunities for good-paying jobs, high-quality childcare. 

When communities of color endure generational poverty, it’s because our patterns of neighborhood investment are also rooted in white supremacy. It’s time to end these patterns. 

As the City Councilmember who represents South Seattle, an area with a longstanding history of poor investment by the City, I fully support the plan from Decriminalize Seattle and others to divest from the police department and invest instead in our neighbors and neighborhoods.

What does divesting look like? 

For the remainder of 2020, the Council is considering several specific reductions to SPD. Those include:

  • replacing 911 call operations with a civilian controlled system especially since the majority of calls are for non-emergencies
  • removing the Collaborative Policing bureau, which responds to homelessness, mental health situations, and other non-criminal crises 
  • ending contracts with private firms that defend the City against police misconduct
  • cutting SPD spending on public relations

The City of Seattle spends a sliver of our public dollars on building thriving communities. For 2020, the combined budget for four departments — Neighborhoods, Economic Development, Housing, and Planning & Community Development was $185 million. The SPD budget was $400 million.  

Many SPD operations could and should be done by professionals trained in social services. If officers are responding to people dealing with mental illness, or experiencing homelessness, or to young people hanging out, we have a problem. The police shouldn’t be responding to these calls. They aren’t trained social workers and these are not crimes.  

Instead we should invest those public resources into the community, where trained providers can offer meaningful solutions.

How would investment shift to community?

Everything about how our institutions work should be scrutinized to ensure that our community investments are truly rooted in racial equity. This is especially important as we craft our City budget. 

We already have many important alternatives in place — Corner Greeters in Rainier Beach, Community Passageways, WA BLOC, and the REACH program that serves homeless neighbors to name just a few.

The City Council must be prepared to provide significant resources to scale up the groups doing the hard work on the frontlines. We need to support their growth and their capacity to serve our community.

That means we invest in diversion and homelessness outreach; not in Navigation Teams. 

We invest in libraries and community health centers; not in jails. 

We invest in violence prevention, restorative justice, and job training; not in emphasis patrols.

We invest in community-led development that includes resources for land acquisition and site control. 

We invest in education and childcare; not school resource officers. 

We invest in community economic development that is rooted in racial equity. 

When does this happen?

To be sure, we cannot just dismantle an entire department without having a plan for what takes its place. Through early August, the Council is considering some specific cuts as we rebalance the remainder of the 2020 budget; a process necessary due to shortfalls caused by coronavirus. 

How we consider a restructuring of the entire police department will require a community conversation — beginning with a participatory budget process for 2021 led by Decriminalize Seattle and other organizations. This process will create a roadmap for what community safety can look like without police.

Dismantling racism won’t happen overnight. But it can start now. It can start with the Council following the lead of a community that is done with hashtags and is demanding action. 

We’ve tried reforming the department. It hasn’t worked. 

We can no longer accept biased policing in our city. We can no longer accept excessive use of force and a constant resistance to improved accountability measures. 

My office is guided by three principles: 

  • repairing the harm done to communities of color by this City for decades
  • democratizing access to power and resources through things like participatory budgeting and
  • planning for the 7th generation by supporting green economies and climate justice. 

Shifting significant resources from SPD back to our communities is fundamental to achieving these goals. That’s how we build community wealth, health, and safety.

We owe the Black and Indigenous community about 500 years worth of investments. It’s time to pay up.

Tammy Morales is a Seattle City Councilmember representing South Seattle, Georgetown, and the Chinatown-International District. 

Featured image by Alex Garland.

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