by Paul Kiefer
(This article was originally published on PubliCola and has been reprinted with permission.)
The Seattle City Council’s debate about a proposed cut to the Seattle Police Department’s (SPD) budget will drag on for at least another two weeks, but a discussion during Tuesday’s Public Safety Committee meeting shed light on the growing disagreement within the council about how the City should hold SPD accountable for overspending.
On one side, councilmembers Tammy Morales and Kshama Sawant argued that the council is obligated to follow through on past promises — in this case, a resolution passed last December expressing the council’s intent to cut $5.4 million from SPD’s budget to account for an equivalent amount of overspending by SPD.
On the other side, Council President Lorena González, committee Chair Lisa Herbold, and Councilmember Andrew Lewis made the case for a substitute proposal that would reduce the budget cut to $3 million to enable SPD to upgrade department software and hire civilian staff to fill much-needed roles in their public disclosure unit, evidence storage unit, and mental health crisis response teams. (Some of these civilian positions will eventually transition into other departments, Lewis noted.) From their perspective, the changes are in the interest of the council’s most pressing police-related priorities: improving transparency, following the recommendations of city and federal oversight bodies, and expanding options for non-police crisis response.
Ultimately, the council voted to move Herbold’s substitute bill forward without making a formal recommendation that the full council adopt it, with Morales and Sawant voting “no.”
Both approaches require trade-offs. If the council cuts the full $5.4 million from SPD’s budget, the department will likely leave important roles unfilled and could draw more criticism from the monitoring team appointed by a federal district court judge to supervise reforms to SPD. If the council imposes a smaller budget cut, it will be relying on SPD to follow through with the council’s priorities — especially hiring civilian staff instead of more officers — despite the department’s record of breaking promises to the council (its use of excess overtime being one recent example).
The dispute over the $5.4 million got its start last August, when, in an effort to avoid spending extra money on protest-related overtime, the council passed a resolution saying that they wouldn’t support any increase to SPD’s budget “to offset overtime expenditures above the funds budgeted in 2020 or 2021.” Three months later, the council backpedaled, grudgingly adding $5.4 million to SPD’s to backfill for overspending on family leave, separation pay, and overtime pay for officers working at COVID-19 testing sites.
At the time, several council members — including Budget Committee Chair Teresa Mosqueda — argued that the department could have avoided year-end budget shortfalls if it had scaled back its protest response and prioritized spending on other unanticipated expenses.
The council wasn’t happy bailing out SPD, and on the same day, they passed the resolution expressing their intent to cut $5.4 million from the department’s budget in 2021 to account for the overspending and discourage the department from spending beyond its budget in the future. The council also placed a proviso (a spending restriction) on another $5 million in anticipated salary savings from attrition, directing SPD to spend those funds on council priorities.
By February, some councilmembers started to think twice about the cuts, particularly as SPD pressured the council to consider the impacts of additional budget cuts on an already shrinking department — nearly 200 officers left SPD in 2020 — and on SPD’s compliance with the federal court’s expectations. Meanwhile, other emerging needs appeared on the council’s radar, including a report from Seattle’s Office of the Inspector General highlighting the urgent need for more civilian staff in SPD’s overcrowded evidence storage warehouse.
The substitute bill supported by Herbold, Lewis, and González would dole out the $5 million from anticipated salary savings monthly in exchange for monthly staffing reports on hiring and attrition; according to Herbold, requiring those staffing reports would give the council a chance to intervene if it sees reasons for concern.
Morales was not enthused by the new proposal. “The department can choose to prioritize its budget however it wants, whether it’s for evidence storage or public disclosure,” she said during Tuesday’s committee meeting. “Last year, it didn’t [choose those priorities]. Instead, it chose to prioritize overspending on overtime pay.” Instead, she argued that the council should cut the full $5.4 million and expect SPD to honor the council’s priorities and avoid overspending in the future.
Sawant joined Morales, arguing that reducing the cut to SPD’s budget would not have the desired effect of “holding the line” against overspending by SPD, but would instead “move it back another year, with no guarantee that it won’t move back again and again.”
But Herbold maintained that the reduced cut would “create a dialogue with the department” about shared budget priorities that did not exist during last year’s budget discussions. “My hope is that we can still take a strong position against overtime spending that exceeds their budget,” she added.
Despite a month of discussions and presentations about the proposed budget cut, the committee was not able to vote on the measure on Tuesday. The obstacle: a list of questions sent by the federal monitoring team to SPD leadership concerning the possible impacts of a budget cut on the department’s compliance with Seattle’s consent decree — the 2012 agreement between the City and the Department of Justice giving a federal district court judge the power to oversee reforms to SPD. Until the federal judge weighs in on the implications of the proposed cut, the council can’t move forward.
Instead, in the interest of taking a small step forward, the committee voted 3-2 to adopt Herbold’s substitute bill; Morales and Sawant maintained their opposition to reducing the size of the budget cut. After the federal court issues its opinion on the proposed budget cut, the committee will be able to move to present the bill to the full council.
Paul Faruq Kiefer is a journalist, historian, and born-and-bred Seattleite. He has published work with KUOW, North Carolina Public Radio, and The Progressive magazine, and he is currently working on a podcast for KUAF in Fayetteville, Arkansas. Paul reports on police accountability for PubliCola.
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