Photo depicting a crowd of protestors. One holds a sign that prominently reads "#Defund the Police!!!!"

Seattle’s Divide on Public Safety Is Fueling a Fight Over Next Year’s Police Budget

by Ben Adlin

After an election that largely snubbed progressive candidates, advocates calling for cuts to police budgets are working to convince Seattle leaders to follow through with promises to reform law enforcement and fund alternatives to dealing with the city’s problems.

A revised budget proposal out of the Seattle City Council this week would make about $10.8 million in cuts to Mayor Jenny Durkan’s proposed 2022 funding increases to the Seattle Police Department (SPD). Projected revenue for Seattle’s general fund has fallen by about $15 million since Durkan released her proposed $7.1 billion City budget in September.

Durkan has said the investment in police is needed to address higher-than-normal officer departures in recent years and ensure fast response times to emergencies. But councilmembers and community advocates have challenged that idea, arguing that investments in services such as housing and education do more to improve public safety and improve the resiliency of vulnerable communities.

A rebalanced budget package introduced last Tuesday, Nov. 9, by City Council Select Budget Committee Chair Teresa Mosqueda would reduce Durkan’s proposed $365.4 million police budget to $354.6 million. Overall, Mosqueda’s budget would amount to an $8.3 million (2.3%) cut to SPD funding compared to this year’s budget, while Durkan’s plan would expand police spending by $2.5 million (0.7%).

Meanwhile, the Seattle Solidarity Budget coalition, which represents a number of local groups focused on improving public services and investing in Seattle’s BIPOC communities, is calling for an additional $29 million to be cut from next year’s police budget. The group sees the final weeks of the budget process as a chance to cement popular calls for police reform that took center stage during widespread community protests last year, following the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

Already both Durkan, who oversaw SPD’s response to last year’s protests, and Mayor-elect Bruce Harrell, who won by a 59–41 margin in last week’s elections, have signalled their opposition to the amendments in Mosqueda’s plan. In a statement last week, Durkan called the election results “a clear rejection of the City Council’s plans to defund SPD,” deriding the council budget proposal as “déjà vu all over again with the Council proposing one of the largest cuts to public safety to date.”

Harrell said the cuts are “in direct conflict with what Seattle voters demanded.”

“The City Council needs to listen to voters’ desire for immediate investments in public safety and reverse the proposed $10 million cut to the SPD budget,” he said in a statement.

Another public City Council hearing is scheduled for 9:30 a.m. on Thursday, Nov. 18. The full council is expected to vote on a final budget on the following Monday, Nov. 22, at which point Durkan can sign the budget into law, veto it, or allow it to become law without her signature.

A flow chart that depicts the 2021 Seattle budget timeline beginning with city budget office and department presentations and ending with council vote on Nov. 22.
2021 Budget Timeline Overview. Sourced from the Seattle City Council Select Budget Committee Meeting.

Advocates from the Seattle Solidary Budget are framing the debate as an opportunity for Seattle to secure a victory in their hard-fought effort to draw down funding of SPD. The department has been under federal court oversight since 2012 following an investigation into excessive force and biased policing against People of Color. They also used tear gas against protestors last year despite a City ban.

“We know that change in society happens in short bursts,” said Angélica Cházaro, a Decriminalize Seattle organizer and UW law professor, who spoke at a Solidarity Budget event on Tuesday, Nov. 9. “We take giant leaps — like the one that we’ve all been taking together these past 18 months, with beginning a defund from police and investment in community — and then they slide back a bit, right? … Last year’s uprising created a giant leap forward. And while the election may point to some backsliding, we know we’re headed in the right direction.”

“What can we do with these last few weeks of this budget fight to make sure that everything, that giant leap we’ve taken these past 18 months, is cemented into a budget that protects our wins and protects our people,” she asked, “knowing that some of the people who are now in office are people who want to go back?”

Cházaro said that while there’s much to celebrate about Mosqueda’s proposal, it also has a ways to go.

Seattle Solidarity Budget wants to see an additional $29 million in cuts to SPD, said Travonna Thompson-Wiley, from Black Action Coalition, including eliminating a department slush fund and rolling back 134 additional positions the department would fund in 2022 but has no immediate plans to fill.

“No other City department gets extra funding that has no plans to hire in the future,” Thompson-Wiley said, adding that some departments actually have staffing plans that are underfunded. “We can go ahead and direct those funds to the Human Services Department, just for a start.”

Rather than police, Solidarity Budget advocates are calling on councilmembers to invest in programs and services aimed at improving equity by building stronger communities. Defunding SPD, speakers said, is part of the coalition’s broader push to prioritize the environment, housing, education, transportation, childcare and nutrition, Indigenous sovereignty, and criminal justice reform.

“We’re always invited to sort of silo our fights, and the Solidarity Budget, we, again, refuse those distinctions, because we know that our fights are so intertwined and interlinked,” Cházaro said. “We’re trying to say, you know, public safety and the Green New Deal are synonymous, public safety and housing are synonymous, public safety and Indigenous sovereignty are synonymous, and education, and day care, you know — the things that actually create public safety.”

Solidarity Budget supporters and others spoke last week during a City Council public comment period and at budget committee meetings. They’re also organizing a Protect Our Wins, Protect Our People rally at City Hall the evening of Tuesday, Nov. 16.

Most of Mosqueda’s proposed SPD reductions come from cuts to Durkan’s proposed increases to SPD hiring incentives ($1.1 million), technology projects ($1.2 million), the Community Service Officers (CSO) program expansion ($1.3 million), expected savings from officers leaving the force ($2.7 million), and “other salary savings and efficiency savings,” according to the budget chair’s presentation at last Tuesday’s committee meeting.

While a slide in that presentation described the changes as $10.8 million in reductions to SPD’s 2022 budget, councilmembers and staff, however, said at a budget meeting on Friday that to characterize the change as a cut to SPD was misleading.

“It is not as simple as just saying there was a $15 million shortfall announced two Wednesdays ago,” Mosqueda said. “It is not as simple as saying that $10 million of that came from SPD.”

Instead, she said, the deliberation involved “scouring the budget to see if there was any dollars that would be sitting in a coffer and not used for the purposes of 2022’s recovery and resiliency.” Through more than a hundred amendments, the proposal reallocates nearly $70 million to council priorities, including housing and behavioral health, while also addressing the projected $15 million shortfall. 

Apparent cuts shouldn’t be taken as comments about the programs themselves, Mosqueda said, “but if there was dollars that couldn’t be deployed in 2022, we wanted to make sure we use those for the incredible need we see in community right now.”

Council staff noted that Durkan’s budget plan from September relies on nearly $150 million in revenue from the City’s JumpStart payroll tax to the City’s general fund — more than $60 million than is allowed under current policies — a move that would reduce future spending capacity by that amount in future years. They also said Durkan’s budget includes $70 million for participatory budgeting and the City’s Equitable Communities Initiative but fails to identify where that money would come from.

“These are many priorities that the Council shares, but they were put in this budget without an ongoing funding source to support them,” said Central Staff Director Esther Handy.

Mosqueda at Friday’s meeting pushed back against some of what she called “misconceptions” about the budget, saying that her proposal includes more than $7 million in new investments in SPD. Durkan’s plan, by contrast, contained upward of $17 million in new police spending.

“There was requests for an increase in over $17 million in SPD,” Mosqueda said. “The proposed budget still allows for nearly $7 million of those increases while we also accomplish some salary savings. That’s the distinction: $17 million increase suggested [versus] a near $7 million increase in the proposed budget while also capturing cost savings in other aspects. But there still is that increased investment that we would like to highlight.”

Councilmember Lisa Herbold, vice chair of the budget committee, added that she was “very frustrated seeing all the headlines saying that your proposed budget proposes a $10 million cut in SPD’s budget. That is not the case. Your proposed budget proposes a $7 million increase over the 2021 SPD budget.”

While Mosqueda’s proposal does “cut $10.8 million [general fund dollars] from SPD,” according to the staff presentation, that money comes from positions the department isn’t currently expected to fill. The proposal would at the same time increase funding for specific SPD programs, for example putting $4.6 million toward overtime pay.

Council staffer Greg Doss tried to explain the confusion at Friday’s meeting. 

“When we spoke last, on Wednesday, we talked about the $10.9 million in reductions to SPD, and we used the term ‘reduction’ because we were talking about these changes relative to the 2022 proposed budget,” Doss said. “What happened when the mayor created the 2022 proposed budget is that she sent a budget that was appropriating somewhere around $19 million dollars of salary funding for officers that would not be needed because there are not officers there to take the salaries.”

While that unused money might normally be redirected to the general fund, Doss explained, Durkan’s proposed budget retains the money and reallocates it to specific SPD spending items.
“The council made some decisions to reduce these items, and it appears as though the council is making a cut,” Doss said. “And that is not necessarily a fair way to portray it.”

Mosqueda’s budget is effectively rejecting new SPD spending items proposed by Durkan, he added. “That is more true than the case that the council is cutting the SPD base budget.”

Semantics of the funding decisions aside, any reduction in SPD’s overall budget would be a tiny slice of what seemed possible last year. Amid the height of local protests against police violence and racism, what was seen as a veto-proof majority of City Councilmembers briefly committed to cutting SPD’s budget by 50%, then adopted far more modest reforms.

Though equity advocates generally support Mosqueda’s new budget proposal as a meaningful step toward community-focused public safety, some have criticized it further for eliminating Durkan’s planned expansion of the City’s CSO program. CSOs are civilian employees who support SPD patrols but don’t respond to criminal calls, instead helping residents and businesses navigate services. Many supporters of reform have acknowledged the program is an important step away from aggressive policing.

Durkan’s budget proposal earmarked an additional $1.3 million for the CSO program, which would add six additional CSO positions to the City’s current number of 18. Part of Mosqueda’s proposed $10.8 million cut to SPD would eliminate that extra money, keeping funding at current levels.

“To cut the CSO program is just a continuance of your tone deafness and total silence around violence impacting our communities,” journalist Omari Salisbury wrote Wednesday on Twitter to Mosqueda and the City Council.

Nikkita Oliver, a community organizer and executive director of Creating Justice, who is also a member of the Solidarity Budget coalition, pushed back on Salisbury’s claim the amendment qualified as a cut. “There is a difference between a cut & not expanding,” they tweeted Wednesday. “It is true this is not an expansion but it’s also true this is not a cut.”

Mosqueda said last week that the elimination of the additional proposed CSO funding would be done as part of a process of deciding what department should oversee the relatively new program. “The work of the CSOs is not in question,” she said at a budget committee meeting on Wednesday. “The ongoing question is the placement and location of CSOs in the future.”

She emphasized that the plan would still allow for the hiring of 125 new police officers, as Durkan has proposed: “Absolutely every single position the mayor has planned to hire [is] currently included in this budget.”

Hundreds of SPD officers have left their jobs since last year, with many citing a climate in Seattle that was hostile to police. More than 325 officers have departed in the past year, a situation Police Chief Adrian Diaz has described as a “staffing crisis.” Currently SPD has just over a thousand deployable officers.

In response, Durkan issued an emergency order late last month to create $10,000 to $25,000 hiring bonuses for police officers and 911 dispatch workers. 

Now some who previously left the force are coming back. Nine officers have returned in recent months, KOMO News reported Thursday, Nov. 11, including Sgt. Lauren Truscott, who was sworn in Wednesday morning after leaving the department last year. “I was honored to be with SPD,” said Truscott, who joined the Issaquah Police Department in January. “I left for a promotional opportunity.”

With debate over police funding likely to intensify ahead of the City Council’s budget deadline, Mosqueda’s proposal will probably be amended. It remains to be seen whether councilmembers will compromise with Durkan and Harrell’s call to reverse the police budget cuts or whether they’ll consider further reductions, as called for by Seattle Solidarity Budget activists.

Regardless of the outcome, Cházaro of Decriminalize Seattle said one crucial victory of organizers’ past 18 months has been to successfully challenge the conventional view that more police means better public safety.

“What this election proved is that the facts of police violence are now incontestable and cannot be hidden any longer,” she said. “We have changed the conversation about public safety. We have broken open the notion that public safety and police are synonymous.”

Ben Adlin is a reporter and editor who grew up in the Pacific Northwest and currently lives on Capitol Hill. He’s covered politics and legal affairs from Seattle and Los Angeles for the past decade and has been an Emerald contributor since May 2020, writing about community and municipal news. Find him on Twitter at @badlin.

📸 Featured Image: A demonstrator holds up a sign during a 2020 Seattle protest. (Photo: Alex Garland)

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