City Council Members Discuss Defunding Police in 2020 Budget — but Not by 50 Percent

By Chetanya Robinson

Seattle City Council members outlined specific plans for slashing the Seattle Police Department (SPD) budget in 2020 and reimagining how the city provides public safety, weeks after a veto-proof majority first committed to defunding the police by 50%.

The new proposals do not cut the department’s budget by 50% in 2020, falling short of demands from prominent community organizations after the the murder of George Floyd and city-wide demonstrations against systemic racism and police brutality. 

“We know that there are roadblocks to meeting all of the requests coming from community,” said District 2 Councilmember Tammy Morales during the budget meeting on Friday, July 31.

But Councilmembers hope they’ve started a process that could be a model for the upcoming 2021 budget discussions and beyond. 

“It’s really a first step in creating a really meaningful public safety system for everybody,” said Morales in a separate interview with the Emerald on Friday.

The plan, outlined in a draft resolution, calls for the creation of a new, civilian-led Department of Community Safety and Violence Prevention in 2021. It would also move some functions of SPD into other departments: 911 would shift to a civilian-led department, the Office of Emergency Management and Harbor Patrol would move to the Fire Department, and parking enforcement would be managed by the Department of Transportation. 

The resolution also calls for a community-led research process to inform the structure of the new public safety department. It asks SPD Chief Carmen Best to begin making reforms to the police department. This include prioritizing certain 911 calls, such as those involving guns; cases where a slow response could lead to death or injury; and calls involving sexual assault, abuse, or neglect. The resolution also calls for deprioritizing of police actions that have a disproportionate impact on people of color.

Council members discussed a number of amendments that would make cuts to the department, including cutting staff from the mounted unit, community outreach, public affairs, the unit that provides security at special events, the SWAT team, and the Navigation Team, which is involved in sweeps of homeless encampments. In most cases, the cuts would not eliminate any of the units. Other amendments would transfer victim advocates from SPD to the Human Services Department, and civilian data analysis roles to the Department of Finance and Administrative Services.

Overall, the amendments would reduce department staff by 100 full-time equivalent positions, out of 1,428 sworn officers in the department. The plan calls for 70 actual layoffs, while not replacing 30 or more officers expected to resign by the end of the year. Of the 70 layoffs, 54 are expected to be recruits and 16 student officers, but no fully trained officers would be laid off. 

The resolution is a “roadmap,” said Council President Lorena González, and a commitment to invest in community solutions for public safety. González has previously said she became convinced that defunding SPD by 50% was the right thing to do after the murder of George Floyd, the inequities laid bare by the COVID-19 pandemic, and seeing the police using tear gas on residents, despite being under a consent decree

“We have spent years trying to reform a police department that has only been marginally improved and I don’t say that lightly,” she said in an interview with the Emerald in late July. “There has to be radical, transformational change, and it cannot just be around the edges.”

Councilmembers will continue discussing how to adjust the 2020 budget during three future meetings on Aug. 3 and 5, before likely voting on the adjustments and police defunding plans on Aug. 10.

The defunding plans follow an “inquest” into SPD’s budget from Budget Committee Chair Teresa Mosqueda, and “a desire to open what was the black box of the Seattle Police Department’s budget.” The deep dive into SPD’s budget came shortly after demonstrations against police brutality and racism in Seattle that ignited in early summer.

A road map for defunding the police by 50% was first presented to the City Council by King County Equity Now, a coalition of Black-led organizations, and by Decriminalize Seattle. 

The organizations called for defunding the remaining 2020 Police Department Budget by 50%, and cutting 50% every year starting in 2021. They also called for a four-part plan to move 911 to civilian control, invest in community organizations dedicated to violence prevention, invest in affordable housing, and fund a community-led research process to identify public safety needs. 

The City Council’s attempt to hammer out what these proposals would look like presented challenges. 

In addition to the challenge of making the layoffs due to the police union contract, Morales raised the concern that SPD has already spent much of its overtime budget this year during the George Floyd protests, preventing the City Council from redirecting this funding. 

“Honestly, because they’ve spent so much money tear-gassing people, we don’t have that gear money to take to put into community,” Morales said in her interview with the Emerald on Friday.

On Twitter, King County Equity Now expressed disappointment with the amendments, saying they were “undoubtedly a step forward,” but that they “fall well short of the Community’s demand to maximize public safety.”

Sawant criticized her colleagues’ defunding plans for 2020 as little more than a “rounding error” in the police budget, saying it was a retreat from the promise to defund by 50%.

“We predictably see that when it comes time for the actual budget amendments, the majority of the Councilmembers do nothing even close to defunding the police by 50%,” she said, and disputed that layoffs couldn’t happen sooner than November.

Sawant’s amendments, which would cut the 2020 budget for SPD by closer to 50% across the board, will be discussed during the City Council’s Aug. 3 meeting.

As well as cuts, several amendments called for spending $17 million to contract with community organizations and build their capacity to potentially respond to 911 calls and work to prevent violence, as well as funding a community process to re-envision public safety that would inform the City Council’s deliberations on the 2021 budget in the fall.

This funding would not come from defunding the police department, however, but potentially from a large chunk — $12.8 million — of the city’s rainy day fund. This would be repaid in 2021 either by cuts to the police department, through the JumpStart Seattle payroll tax, or not at all. This lack of concrete funding sources drew the ire of both Councilmembers Sawant and Juarez. 

“This is not defunding. You’re using the rainy day fund,” Sawant said.

Other Councilmembers argued that trying to cut the budget through more layoffs would not lead to enough funding to identify new community solutions for public safety. 

“Without significant charter amendments, without significant labor contract violations, there is no other way to commit to getting these dollars out the door right now,” Mosqueda said. 

Morales said the funding to contract with community organizations was a “down payment on the work that we still have to do.”

Juarez defended her initial choice not to commit to defunding the police by 50%. 

“This is what happens when you write a check you can’t cash,” she said. “We’re not going to get to 50%, and I think you should just say that.”

The proposed cuts are bolder than Mayor Jenny Durkan’s plan to cut the department budget. Durkan opposes cutting by 50%, and instead has proposed a cut of $20 million, largely a response to the budget challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. On July 13, Durkan announced a proposal for restructuring the SPD, including moving parking enforcement, 911 dispatch, the Office of Police Accountability, and the Office of Emergency Management to other city departments. Overall, these cuts would amount to 20% of the budget, but the restructuring would not free up new funds. 

During a July 13 press conference, Chief Best said that because of police department policy, cuts would affect the most junior staff first, and cuts would disproportionately affect people of color in the department. 

“I will not sacrifice officers of color for political points,” Best said.

To address this, the new City Council resolution asks Chief Best to prioritize laying off officers with sustained complaints against them, rather than by seniority, and to keep patrol staffing in every district, in alignment with the city charter.

Morales said she felt good about what the Council put together for 2020, despite the challenge of finding more funding.

“Because we maybe didn’t get to a 50-percent reduction this year doesn’t mean we aren’t committed,” she said. “There was no stone left unturned to find the money.”

Featured image from the Emerald archives.