by Mark Van Streefkerk
On Monday July 27, Mayor Jenny Durkan hosted the sixth virtual Town Hall since the COVID-19 health crisis, specifically focusing on information and resources for Southeast and Central Seattle, as well as answering questions from the community about policing. Durkan was joined by public health officials, including the Director of Public Health and a spokesperson from the Seattle Police Department to answer questions and receive feedback from residents.
In her opening statements, Durkan brought up three main issues: the state of the COVID-19 crisis in Seattle and new public health resources, relief for the economic toll of the pandemic, and the “civil rights reckoning” that has led many to protest for Black lives and brought the actions of SPD under scrutiny.
Durkan said, “I believe we can have a new path forward for Seattle. So if someone calls 911, if they need a police officer, they will get one very quickly. But often they need a different kind of help. They need a social worker, or someone who has experience in crisis intervention. We want to build up that capability, and to do so, we really are going to have to rely on community-based organizations who are already doing this work, who know what community needs, know how communities need to heal. We also have to make unprecedented investments into our Black communities and communities of color. We need people to have what they need so they have affordable housing, access to healthcare, true educational opportunity and justice, and true economic justice.”
Moving on to address the state of COVID-19 in Seattle, Director of Public Health Patty Hayes presented data showing the number of confirmed cases had quadrupled since starting to reopen the economy in early June. South Seattle in particular is a new epicenter. “In South Seattle into South King County, our BIPOC communities, our communities of color are disproportionately impacted,” Hayes affirmed. “This relates to the vulnerability because of long-standing problems that affect the BIPOC communities’ health. With more health conditions, chronic conditions, and the inability to work from home.”
Hayes doesn’t expect a vaccine until next year, and continues to urge people to stay home if they feel sick, to maintain social distancing, and continue hand washing and wearing face coverings in public. With free existing test sites on Aurora Avenue and in SODO, Public Health will add new testing sites and contact tracing. Fire Chief Harold Scoggins said new testing sites could be announced by the end of the week. Hayes encouraged residents to visit www.kingcounty.gov/covid/data for the latest data about COVID-19 in Seattle. Individuals can sign up for free testing at one of the testing sites here.
Durkan and Hayes explained they would be working with “trusted ambassadors” from BIPOC communities to relay information and resources about COVID-19.
Jason Johnson, Director of the Human Services Department, stated that while COVID-19 cases have increased among the general population, “transmissions have been flat at city-supported shelter programs.”
Johnson credits safer shelter initiatives such as creating what the city says are around 400 new beds to redistribute people from high-density shelter settings into less-dense community centers and hotels, as well as the creation of 95 new spaces in tiny homes. Outreach and hygiene services also help, in addition to “robust testing” at shelters, and capacity available for isolation, quarantine, and recovery sites. In March however, journalist Erica C. Barnett found some discrepancies between the reported number of beds and public bathrooms.
Johnson said, “Since the beginning of the COVID crisis we have ceased any encampment removal operations unless there has been a severe criminal or public health element in the encampment.” It should be noted that Erica C. Barnett also questioned this narrative and the official numbers on encampment removals in a June 23 article.
Addressing economic concerns, Durkan revealed there will be a projected $300 million “hole in our budget for 2020,” with the same deficit projected for the next year. Durkan referenced her commitment to $100 million in funding for Black communities, as well as working on extending the eviction moratorium, distributing thousands of grocery vouchers, and working with partners and philanthropies to directly provide rent relief.
SPD’s Christopher Fisher, Executive Director of Strategic Initiatives, spoke on behalf of Chief of Police Carmen Best, who was unable to attend due to an “urgent issue.” He said he understood the pain of many in the wake of the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others, and that institutional change is urgent. “The Seattle Police Department wants change too, but we want to have that change through conversation, not violent protest.”
Fisher explained that at Saturday’s protests, after “violence and arson and property destruction, some looting and some projectiles, some were explosive in nature, thrown at officers … this demonstration clearly became a riot. That’s when SPD had to step in and engage the crowd and try to regain control.”
He said Best chose to not use tear gas over the weekend, but instead used pepper spray and blast balls “as needed.”
Questions from the community were raised about how SPD handles complaints about officers, to which Fisher responded that the Office of Police Accountability (OPA) has 180 days to complete an investigation. Progress on open cases can be seen on OPA’s dashboard. Replying to the question of why some officers wear face masks and others don’t, Fisher replied that Best is clear about face masks being mandatory for officers. For those who defy that order, it’s a chain of command issue, but “if someone repetitively had to be told” to use a face mask, it could become an OPA issue.
Fisher added, “There are circumstances where if they’re heavily riding a bike, in terms of respiration, that might be an exception. I’m not completely sure on that.”
Fisher and Durkan both stressed the need for an overhaul of 911 calls. Last year, SPD responded to almost 17,000 crisis calls. Not every one of those calls needed a police officer, Durkan noted. The success of Health One, a program through the Fire Department where a trained medic and social worker respond to mental or behavioral health crises, is one example of reducing SPD response to 911 calls.
Durkan said, “Chief Best and I have made very clear that we don’t believe you can have a drastic [SPD budget] cut of 50% this year or next without impairing community safety for everybody. To make those cuts you would be cutting police officers.”
Fisher emphasized, “If the department was quickly cut by 50%, it would be a large-scale layoff. Fortunately it seems, though we’re waiting to see this week, as council debates … what it will look like, but it seems like maybe that drastic cut is no longer in the cards. We’re really preparing every day for how to respond to different budget realities to make sure we can continue to provide essential public safety services to the community.”
Mark Van Streefkerk is a South Seattle-based journalist living in the Beacon Hill neighborhood.
Featured image: Mayor Jenny Durkan addressed Seattle’s COVID-19 health crisis, as well as resources for Southeast and Central Seattle residents in Monday’s virtual Town Hall. (Screenshot captured by Mark Van Streefkerk)