Seattle Council Takes a Small Bite Out of Police Budget, Chief Best Will Retire

by Erica C. Barnett

(Updated at 12:58pm on 8/11/20)

(This article originally appeared on The C is for Crank and has been reprinted with permission.)

Advocates for an immediate 50% cut to the Seattle Police Department’s budget may have walked away unsatisfied Monday evening, when the City Council passed a midyear budget package that lopped just 7% off SPD’s remaining 2020 budget. But the Council majority left no question that they consider the short-term cuts a down payment on a more substantive proposal next year — one that, importantly, has a shot of making it through labor negotiations with the powerful police officers’ union. 

In a surprising turn, Seattle’s Police Chief Carmen Best will announce her retirement on Tuesday in the wake of the Council’s decision. This was confirmed with multiple sources including the mayor’s office. The C is for Crank was also able to obtain a copy of Chief Best’s letter to SPD announcing her departure on September 2.

The Council-approved budget package would eliminate the equivalent of 100 full-time officers through a combination of layoffs and attrition. The Council made requests for specific layoffs — zeroing in, for example, on the Navigation Team, the mounted patrol, and the sworn portion of SPD’s public affairs office — but they have no power to actually dictate how the police department spends its budget, which is why no “defund the police” proposal (short of eliminating the department altogether) actually requires Seattle’s Chief of Police to spend their budget in the way the Council wants. As a result, the rhetoric around the council’s cuts has often been far more heated than the modest changes suggest.

Council member Kshama Sawant, who cast the lone “no” vote against the rebalancing package (Debora Juarez was absent), accused her colleagues of passing an “austerity budget” that “fails working people” because it did not include her version of the so-called “Amazon” (payroll) tax. (Budget chair Teresa Mosqueda’s retort: “No one is siding with Jeff Bezos.”)

Mayor Jenny Durkan, who has held numerous press conferences to denounce the Council majority’s more modest plan, issued a statement after the vote saying it was “unfortunate Council has refused to engage in a collaborative process to work with the mayor, Chief Best, and community members to develop a budget and policies that respond to community needs while accounting for — not just acknowledging — the significant labor and legal implications involved in transforming” SPD.

The package of bills adopted Monday would also achieve the following: 

• Express a commitment to creating a new civilian-led Department of Community Safety & Violence Prevention by the end of next year — a proposal Sawant mocked as “resolution to hope to study defunding the police”;

• Start the process of civilianizing the 911 system by putting a civilian director and deputy director in charge of the 911 call center (which is already run by non-sworn SPD personnel);

• Reallocate funding that Durkan originally allocated for an expansion of probation to community groups working to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 on vulnerable populations;

• Cut the salaries of SPD’s command staff (with the exception of Best, who would see her $294,000 salary reduced by less than $20,000 if she stays on);

Allocate $1.7 million to non-congregate shelter through a proviso that would prohibit Durkan’s Human Services Department from spending the money on any other purpose;

• Empower the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program to enroll new clients into its Co-LEAD program, which has been held up by the executive branch for months, without SPD participation;

• Earmark $17 million for community organizations working to create new systems of community safety outside the police department; and

• Move millions of dollars from levy funds that were supposed to pay to expand programs or create new ones to pay for the ongoing operations of city departments, such as the Seattle Department of Transportation and the Department of Education and Early Learning.

The changes adopted Monday amend Mayor Durkan’s original budget-balancing proposal, which relied heavily on a hiring freeze, emergency funds, federal grants, and levy dollars that had been allocated for other purposes to close an anticipated shortfall of more than $200 million. On Monday morning, just minutes before the weekly Council briefing meeting, the mayor’s office distributed a memo from CBO director Ben Noble projecting an additional revenue shortfall of $26 million this year alone

Near the end of almost eight straight hours of budget discussions, Councilmember Lisa Herbold said she wanted to state for the record that “we as a council and the mayor’s office are in a really unique position to seize upon a moment in the city and in this country” by taking seriously community demands to redefine public safety and defund the police. “I am hopeful that we are more aligned in our desire to do that than it has appeared in the last two weeks.”

That hope seems optimistic. In adopting the midyear budget Monday, the Council rejected Durkan’s proposal to discard the historical practice of two-year budgeting, demanded a report that would provide more transparency into how SPD is actually spending its budget, and prepared to overturn Durkan’s veto of a COVID relief plan that would temporarily drain the city’s emergency reserves until they can be replenished with funds from the new payroll tax that goes into effect in 2022. The Council will start the whole process over again next month when the mayor proposes her 2021 budget.

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: Seattle City Council members Kshama Sawant and Teresa Mosqueda in council chambers, December 2017 (Photo: Seattle City Council under Creative Commons license.