by Paul Faruq Kiefer
(This article originally appeared on PubliCola and has been reprinted with permission.)
The Seattle City Council voted on Monday, Sept. 13, to shore up several of its own priorities for rethinking public safety using $15 million in savings from salaries left unspent by the Seattle Police Department (SPD) after another year of abnormally high attrition.
The council left almost two-thirds of the $15 million in the department’s budget, allowing SPD to cover the costs of downsizing — updates to timekeeping software to help deploy a smaller number of officers more efficiently, for example. Additionally, the council lifted a trio of provisos on the department’s budget, releasing roughly $8 million for the department to use as it wants.
Of the $5.2 million the council shifted out of SPD’s budget, $3 million will go to the Human Services Department (HSD) to fund grants to nonprofits specializing in alternatives to policing. The council set aside another $700,000 to stand up a new civilian crisis-response unit tentatively called Triage One.
SPD’s staffing crisis loomed over Monday’s budget vote, as highlighted by a pair of unsuccessful amendments introduced by Councilmember Alex Pedersen that laid out two options for scaling up the department’s recruitment and retention efforts. The more ambitious of the two would have set aside nearly $2.8 million for SPD to develop a loosely defined “retention program” as well as $233,000 to offer hiring incentives to officers who join SPD — as much as $15,000 for officers who transfer from other agencies. To cover the cost, Pedersen proposed completely abandoning the plan to shift a portion of SPD’s salary savings to HSD; in a blog post on Friday, Sept. 10, Pedersen wrote that “funding for those other programs can be extended at a later date, but we have a SPD staffing crisis today.”
A second, scaled-down proposal would have set aside nearly $900,000 for retention while leaving the amount earmarked for hiring incentives unchanged; the latter plan would have left the HSD dollars untouched, instead drawing from still-unassigned dollars in SPD’s budget to pay for overtime.
Ahead of Monday’s meeting, both Mayor Jenny Durkan and Interim SPD Chief Adrian Diaz urged the council to support one of Pedersen’s amendments, casting the proposals as a vital intervention for a department in a downward spiral. “As a City, we need to address the real hiring and retention challenges at the Seattle Police Department,” Durkan wrote. “It’s a false choice to invest in alternatives or hire and retain officers to meet our current 911 response.”
But neither option found enough traction to move ahead on Monday. Council Select Budget Committee Chair Teresa Mosqueda argued that scaling up civilian crisis-response units should take priority over the police department’s retention and recruitment woes, while Councilmember Lisa Herbold noted that SPD is not the only city department grappling with a staffing shortage. “If we’re going to focus on recruitment, I think we need to think about vacancies across all departments,” Herbold said.
Councilmember Andrew Lewis voted for Pedersen’s less-ambitious amendment, which failed on a 5–4 vote, citing the short-term need to stem SPD’s losses while civilian emergency responders build their capacity. “Right now, the only service that is to scale and that can provide exigent first response is our police department,” he said.
In an email to PubliCola on Monday, Pedersen said his amendments were intended as emergency measures, not repudiations of the council’s plans to downsize the role of SPD. “It’s all about timing the investments based on the immediate needs,” he said. “We have already set aside tens of millions for additional upstream human services investments, which I also support.”
Pedersen added that the upcoming contract negotiations with the Seattle Police Officers Guild (SPOG) could help reduce SPD’s staffing costs by reining in expenses written into the most recent contract, which expired at the end of 2020. “Having a fair, accountable, cost-effective contract is the most sustainable path to save money for alternatives and to hire some officers to replace those who left,” he said.
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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