Photo of two Seattle Police Department bike officers.

Council Vote Leaves Cuts to Seattle Police Department Budget Unresolved

by Paul Faruq Kiefer

(This article previously appeared on PubliCola and has been reprinted under an agreement.)

Months of debate on the City Council about how to distribute millions of dollars in unpaid Seattle Police Department (SPD) salaries came to an end on Tuesday, May 12, though no one seemed satisfied with the result.

During the meeting, the committee considered a proposal to cut $2.83 million from SPD’s budget while simultaneously lifting a budget proviso on another $5 million that the council has withheld from SPD’s budget since the beginning of the year. Ultimately, the committee sent the ordinance to the full council with a “do not pass” recommendation.

The committee’s discussion was part of the ongoing debate over the council’s promise to curtail overspending by SPD last December. When department leadership informed the council that SPD had overspent their budget by $5.4 million, the council expressed its intent to cut the same amount from SPD’s budget this year. The council hoped that the $5.4 million would support the participatory budgeting process this spring.

The planned cut didn’t jeopardize SPD’s plans to hire new officers, because the council had already passed a budget that provided enough money to pay the salaries of all officers SPD expected to hire or retain in 2021.

But the proposal set off alarm bells at SPD. In March, interim SPD Chief Adrian Diaz appeared before the public safety committee to argue that the department is already hamstrung by earlier budget cuts and staffing losses. Cutting an additional $5.4 million from the department’s budget, he argued, would plunge the department into a staffing crisis “beyond mitigation” by spurring more officers to leave for greener pastures.

Later that month, in response to pressure from SPD to reconsider the cut, public safety committee Chair Lisa Herbold revised the proposal: Instead of cutting $5.4 million from the police department budget, the council could reduce the cut to $2.83 million. Most of the money taken from SPD’s budget would go to the participatory budgeting process; the rest would pay for civilian staff in other city departments who could support SPD, including evidence storage staff and five new mental health crisis responders.

From Herbold’s perspective, the reduced budget cut still allowed the council to penalize SPD for spending beyond their budget in 2020 while also giving the department greater flexibility to fill budget holes as they appeared.

But Herbold’s proposal to reduce the size of the budget cut didn’t assuage SPD’s concerns. And it drew the attention of Dr. Antonio Oftelie, who leads the monitoring team appointed by a federal district court to track the progress of reforms to SPD. Oftelie’s team directed the committee to delay acting on their plans to cut SPD’s budget until department leadership answered a list of questions about the impacts of staffing losses and additional budget cuts on the department’s day-to-day responsibilities.

Last Friday, May 7, — more than a month after the federal monitoring team sent its questions to SPD — the department returned with responses: Any cut to SPD’s budget could jeopardize the department’s compliance with the orders of the federal court, the department claimed, including the court’s expectations that the department adequately staff its community policing, training, and use-of-force investigation teams.

After he received SPD’s responses on Friday, Oftelie reached out to the council to warn against making new cuts to the department’s budget. “Now is the time to allocate resources to SPD at levels that will enable the city to close out the consent decree efficiently, effectively and sustainably,” he told them in an email.

If the council defies Oftelie’s directions, they risk bringing the City into conflict with the federal court, which oversees Seattle’s compliance with the terms of its consent decree, a 2012 agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice requiring the City to address unconstitutional practices by SPD.

In an attempt to walk a line between responding to Oftelie’s concerns and shifting some money out of SPD’s budget, Herbold presented yet another revised proposal to her committee on Tuesday. To give SPD even greater flexibility, Herbold’s newest proposal would offset the $2.83 million cut by lifting a proviso the council passed last November that withholds $5 million in salary savings from SPD; the department’s budget also includes several million more dollars in salary savings unaffected by the proviso because of the abnormally high attrition from the department in the past year.

“I do not want to have the city found out of compliance with the consent decree,” she told her colleagues, “so that’s why I’m reluctantly bringing forward this proposal.”

But few of her colleagues agreed with Herbold’s approach.

“I would support this bill if it were still built around its original intent, which was budget accountability for SPD,” said Councilmember Tammy Morales. She argued that the council promised to curtail the department’s pattern of overspending — particularly on protest-related overtime in 2020 — by imposing some kind of penalty, and SPD leadership are exaggerating the negative impacts of budget cuts. “This is a funding crisis of the department’s own making,” she said.

Council President Lorena González also opposed the proposal, for a completely different reason. According to her reading of Oftelie’s recommendations, any cut to SPD’s budget — even a $2.83 million cut — could earn a rebuke from the federal court. Instead, she argued that the council should wait several months to get a better sense of SPD’s budget needs before trying to “thread the needle” between meeting the court’s demands and shifting money away from the police department.

In the meantime, González recommended that the council neither lift the $5 million proviso nor cut $2.83 million from SPD’s budget. Because the dollars under proviso are still within the department’s budget — inaccessible as they may be — González argued that leaving the proviso in place would be less objectionable to the court than an outright cut. “Keeping with the status quo is basically a no-harm, no-foul position when it comes to the consent decree,” she said.

The committee’s discussion on Tuesday didn’t produce any consensus on the council. Instead, the committee will send Herbold’s proposal to the full council in two weeks, where it is unlikely to pass. If that happens, exhaustive council discussions that have dragged on since the beginning of the year will leave no lasting mark.

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.

📸 Featured Image: The Seattle City Council delayed action on $5.4 million in cuts to the Seattle Police Department (SPD) budget on Tuesday, May 11. (Photo: Alex Garland)

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