by Paul Faruq Kiefer
(This article originally appeared on PubliCola and has been reprinted under an agreement.)
The Seattle City Council voted Thursday, Nov. 19, to leave Mayor Jenny Durkan’s proposal for the Seattle Police Department’s (SPD) 2022 budget largely untouched, and, in the process, put an internal messaging battle — whether to attempt to make peace with SPD or repurpose dollars from the department’s budget in the future — in the spotlight.
The council’s decision to leave Durkan’s budget largely untouched was overshadowed by a dramatic last-minute press release from interim Seattle Police Chief Adrian Diaz, who inaccurately claimed that Council President Lorena González had proposed eliminating more than 100 officers’ jobs. In reality, González’s amendment would have eliminated 101 positions that SPD doesn’t expect to fill in 2022. While Durkan’s budget has already redistributed the unspent salaries for other purposes in 2022, the amendment would have allowed the council to repurpose more than $17 million in future years.
The amendment struck at a pillar of SPD’s accounting strategy: asking the council to leave space in the department’s budget for dozens of positions that SPD can’t feasibly fill and redirecting the unspent salaries elsewhere in the department. In 2022, SPD expects to have 134 vacant positions, leaving a total of $19 million in unspent salaries that the department intends to use for other purposes, including new civilian staff and equipment.
The strategy is unique to SPD; while other departments have vacant positions, only SPD builds a noteworthy portion of its budget around vacancies that it doesn’t expect to fill. González’s amendment also left a 33-vacancy “cushion” in case SPD surpasses its ambitious goal to hire 125 additional officers next year, leaving the department with a maximum of 1,256 officers in 2022.
Diaz’s press release forced González and her colleagues to rehash a familiar debate about whether the council’s budget proposal would restrict the department’s growth or simply bring an end to an unusual accounting trick that gives SPD an annual surplus to spend as it chooses — a privilege, González noted, that no other City department enjoys.
“The interim chief isn’t asking the council for wiggle room or a reasonable level of discretionary funding. He is apparently demanding a blank check and zero fiscal accountability or scrutiny,” González said, calling Diaz’s statement either a “gross, intentional misrepresentation” or a “gross misunderstanding” of her amendment.
A slim majority of the council voted against the amendment, signaling their wariness to engage in a battle with SPD after a year of acrimony with the department.
In the week and a half since council budget chair Teresa Mosqueda debuted revisions to Durkan’s proposal for the SPD budget, the council has seen an onslaught of accusations from Durkan, Mayor-elect Bruce Harrell, Diaz, and others claiming that the council was attempting to slash SPD’s budget and ranks. In fact, Mosqueda’s revised budget would have reduced Durkan’s proposed budget increase by $10.8 million, for a total of $6.8 million in new investments. (The overall size of the police budget would have decreased slightly under Mosqueda’s original proposal).
Most controversially, Mosqueda’s budget assumed that SPD will lose more officers in 2022 than Durkan or Diaz currently project. While Durkan and SPD estimated that just 94 officers would leave the department next year, Mosqueda estimated a loss of at least 125 officers: Enough to cancel out the department’s hiring goals and leave 31 more vacant positions — and $2.7 million more in unspent salaries — than Durkan anticipated.
The mayor’s projections are optimistic, given that SPD will lose an estimated 150 officers by the end of this year. Her estimate also does not factor in the dozen unvaccinated officers currently on leave who will likely lose their jobs in January. However, Diaz and Durkan predict that attrition will decline sharply in 2022, in part because of plans to spend more on retention programs like group therapy.
Additionally, Mosqueda suggested that the council scale back Durkan’s planned increase to the department’s overtime budget, saving another $3.2 million. Mosqueda’s budget also would have maintained, rather than expanded, SPD’s Community Service Officer (CSO) program — a civilian unit that handles outreach and some non-emergency calls — and omitted Durkan’s proposals to pay hiring bonuses to new officers in 2022 and to launch two new software projects.
On Thursday, an amendment sponsored by Councilmember Alex Pedersen to use the City’s emergency reserve funds to restore most of Durkan’s original budget failed by a wide margin; another amendment — also from Pedersen — that would have met Durkan halfway on attrition projections and overtime increases met the same fate.
The council also narrowly voted down an amendment by Councilmember Andrew Lewis that repurposes $2.7 million from the City’s reserves to defer to Durkan’s attrition projections. “There’s an advantage to assuming less attrition so that we don’t have to go back next year to correct the budget,” Lewis said. He also raised concerns about the optics of Mosqueda’s attrition projection, adding that he “would prefer that the council not habitually predict that hiring and [departures] will be the same,” noting that the council made the same prediction last year. While the council initially voted in favor of the amendment, Councilmember Tammy Morales asked for a revote near the end of the session that defeated the proposal; Morales, who previously supported the amendment, reversed her vote.
Mosqueda introduced her own amendment to expand the CSO program, though her $900,000 amendment fell short of Durkan’s original $1.3 million proposal. Because SPD will likely be unable to hire the six additional officers before next spring, she said, the CSO unit will only need six months of funding in 2022. The council agreed, voting overwhelmingly to expand the program. Mosqueda added that she eventually hopes to move the CSO program to a civilian department, but she conceded that the unit will stay in SPD for the foreseeable future. The CSOs have said they aren’t interested in leaving SPD, citing close relationships with their sworn counterparts; Herbold admitted that she had assured the unit’s supervisors that the council wouldn’t force the CSOs to leave SPD in exchange for expanding the program, and Thursday’s vote allowed her to keep her promise.
The council rejected just three minor proposals to increase SPD’s budget. Pedersen’s pitch to add more dollars to SPD’s overtime budget didn’t find traction, and nobody on the council expressed interest in supporting the two SPD technology projects that Mosqueda deemed “non-essential”: a body-worn video analysis system used to assess racial disparities in policing and a wearable biometric monitor that would track police officers’ vital signs to flag officers at risk of using excessive force or acting erratically because of stress.
And while the council broadly agreed that several City departments — not just SPD — would benefit from hiring bonuses in 2022, they could not agree on where those dollars would come from. The council did support a separate proposal from Herbold requiring the City to review which departments would benefit from hiring incentives next year.
Diaz’s 11th-hour press release was an attempt to intervene in the most consequential vote of the evening: González’s proposal to remove more than 101 vacant positions from SPD’s future budgets.
Before she introduced her amendment, González took a deep breath. “Nothing in my amendment proposes eliminating funded or filled positions,” she began. “This is why it’s incomprehensible to me that the interim chief implies otherwise.” Morales and Mosqueda chimed in to support González’s amendment, urging their colleagues to consider how the City could spend the $19 million if it weren’t tied to vacant positions within SPD — and noting that the council could simply add more dollars to SPD’s budget if the department needs new positions.
Only Herbold voiced her opposition to the amendment. “I don’t want to send the message that 1,256 is the right number of officers,” she said, worrying aloud that the public is already frustrated by the shortage of emergency responders and could resent the council for placing even a symbolic cap on SPD’s size.
“I want to make sure we recenter the conversation on whether its appropriate for any administration, current, past or future, to build a department’s budget around numbers they know are inflated, untrue, and unrealistic,” González responded. But Herbold’s concerns prevailed, and the council voted 5–4 to leave SPD’s vacancies untouched, with Councilmember Kshama Sawant joining González, Mosqueda, and Morales on the losing end of the vote.
For a council eager to prove — contrary to Diaz’s claims — that it is not at war with the police department, the optics of González’s amendment seemed too daunting. Instead, the council opted to rubber-stamp SPD’s budgetary sleight-of-hand, ostensibly as a peace offering to the department. SPD will enter 2022 with a larger budget and $19 million to pay officers it likely won’t hire. The vote represents a dramatic reversal for a council that, one year ago, expressed its interest in redistributing a portion of the police department’s budget to build a more diversified public safety network. The decision also underscored that SPD now has the upper hand in the messaging battle.
Editor’s Note: This article has been updated with additional context on Seattle City Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda’s original budget proposal.
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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