Seattle Lawmakers Abandon Plan to Defund Police Department

Sept. 26, 2022
Two years after Seattle City Council members supported a police reform initiative that would have defunded the department by 50%, some officials are calling that proposal a mistake.

When the Seattle City Council approved hiring bonuses of up to $30,000 for police in August, constituents lamented largely unfulfilled promises of police reform made by the council two years ago.

"In Summer 2020, many of you committed to shifting police funds into other city services that could serve as alternates to policing, yet that shift hasn't really happened at scale," Bryan Clark, a Ballard resident, told council before the Aug. 16 vote.

Clark was one of about 20 residents to call the council to voice his opposition to the police bonuses before council approved them 6-3. Some of those callers criticized the council for straying from promises to divest from the Seattle Police Department.

On the heels of weeks of sustained protests against police brutality, spurred by the police killing of George Floyd in May 2020, a majority of the Seattle City Council committed to a series of police reform ideas proposed by activists, including cutting the city's then-$409 million police budget in half. The money divested from SPD was to be spent on alternative responses to some emergency calls and other community services.

But it never happened.

Two years since the commitment was made, the department's budget has been reduced by roughly 13% — primarily by moving $45.4 million in traffic enforcement, 9-1-1 dispatch and other services out of SPD's budget and into those of other departments — and most council members now denounce the idea of defunding the police, focusing instead on finding alternative responses to emergency calls.

Seattle's defunding plan drove a wedge between the council and then-Mayor Jenny Durkan, potentially contributing to the resignation and retirement of more than 400 sworn SPD staff members over the past two years and drawing international interest from critics and supporters of sweeping police reform.

"We knew that it was going to be an uphill battle, but we made that demand because it's a common sense demand," Angélica Cházaro, a lead organizer of Decriminalize Seattle. She continues to advocate alongside other community organizations for the "Solidarity Budget," which would take money from SPD to fund housing, traffic and environmental projects, and other areas of public safety.

"While the city leaders have lost that thread, community members haven't, which is why we see now, for the third year in a row, so much energy around the generation of Solidarity Budget vision," she added, "where people understand that spending nearly a quarter of our city's general funds on police and police pensions is not generating the kind of safety we want."

In 2020, then-Council President M. Lorena González and current Councilmembers Lisa Herbold, Andrew Lewis, Tammy Morales, Teresa Mosqueda, Kshama Sawant and Dan Strauss gave varying degrees of credence to defunding.

At the pinnacle of council support in July 2020, the seven council members had endorsed a reform outline by activist groups Decriminalize Seattle and King County Equity Now, which called for the council to make the 50% cut from SPD to fund affordable housing and community-led public safety efforts, among other things. But even then, the level of commitment varied.

On one end of the spectrum was Sawant, who vehemently supported the plan, and the protesters calling for reform, whom she escorted into City Hall and joined on a march to Durkan's house. Early that July, Mosqueda, Morales and González joined in full-throated support of the defunding plan.

Morales said in July 2022 she still supports divesting from SPD to invest in these alternative responses and other human services, but she doesn't know what the right amount of cuts would be.

Morales says there's a "real disconnect" in the city's budget if a department with a budget as large as SPD's cannot solve the public safety issues at hand.

Sawant still advocates for SPD divestments and other reforms favored by activists in 2020, with no discernible change from 2020.

"Outrageously, the Seattle Police Department continues to be, by far, the biggest part of Seattle's discretionary budget," Sawant said in an August email. "I believe those resources would be far more effectively invested in things that reduce inequality like affordable housing, and furthermore, we need to increase the Amazon Tax that working people and the [ Black Lives Matter] movement won in 2020."

On the other side, Councilmember Alex Pedersen and now-Council President Juarez have consistently rejected the idea of defunding SPD since 2020.

"I was upfront and clear that I opposed the 50% cut because that percentage was arbitrary and because dramatically defunding does not ensure justice, or improve safety," Pedersen said this summer.

Juarez, who did not respond to requests for comment for this story, described the idea as "an empty and misleading slogan," as the council formed the 2021 budget, adding that "it caused damage, it caused pain, it caused trauma."

City voters reinforced this perspective in 2021, decidedly electing Bruce Harrell — a moderate former City Council president determined to bolster the "depleted and demoralized" Police Department in the name of public safety — as mayor over González, the progressive council president who advocated for divesting from and reforming the department.

Voters also chose Sara Nelson, whose campaign hinged on denouncing defunding proposals and protecting local businesses. She was elected to fill the seat González vacated, adding a third council voice to Juarez and Pedersen's policing perspective.

The shift in council sentiment comes largely from those in between.

Herbold and Lewis signed on to the idea of defunding, with Herbold drafting but never introducing a proposal to reduce SPD's remaining 2020 budget by half.

"On Twitter, I just responded to a bunch of people who are tweeting at me and said I'm going to make a proposal for a 50% cut," Herbold explained in July. "It was never a proposal on paper. It was never a piece of legislation."

"It was never an amendment; it was sort of the framework for what could have, if it was realistic, become an amendment," she added.

Later in 2020, Herbold and others strayed from the defunding goal, instead passing more modest reductions to SPD's budget and implementing provisos in 2021 and 2022 that prohibited the department from spending millions of dollars budgeted for salaries of unfilled positions.

Herbold said committing to the cut, even though she changed her mind, was important to signal the intent of the council.

"It's impossible, in my experience, to challenge the status quo if you limit your actions to only what is considered realistic," she said. "I think many of our objectives when signing on to a goal was not so much about whether or not the goal was realistic, it was about recognizing that you have to reach in order to even make a small change."

Lewis, who also abandoned the original pledge, says that committing to "50% was a mistake."

"One regret that I have is, in retrospect, I never would have assigned a percentage," Lewis explained, saying that he thinks committing to a specific figure has "distracted" from implementing alternative responses and other police reforms.

Strauss says he never explicitly supported the 50% defund, but was willing to explore it. In 2020, he tweeted that he was in "100% agreement" with the Decriminalize Seattle plan, urging the council to "define" how the 50% cuts would occur.

Now he shares a similar view to Herbold and Lewis, noting in July that "successes [would be] when you call 9-1-1, there's a fast response 24/7, and the appropriate first responder arrives quickly with the resources they need to be successful."

What's next?

While the 50% cut is not likely to happen with the current council, all members, the mayor and even the incoming chief of police say they support some form of policing alternatives.

According to Lewis, the city needs to come up with a comprehensive alternative response plan to handle homelessness, mental health, addiction and some other crisis response outside of SPD, emphasizing social work, as in cities like Denver and Eugene, Oregon.

"What we just need to do is have a consensus between mayor and council, which I think we're working on that, that really makes it clear, you know, what is the mission of the police department and the police service," Lewis said, "and then how do we adequately fund and support that mission to scale?

"And that has to be in the context of us defining other services and programs to deal with problems that historically we've had the police deal with, but that we now think fall outside of their mission."

The city has shifted some emergency response away from SPD since 2020, moving civilian 911 dispatchers, the Office of Emergency Management and parking enforcement out from under the department and expanding the city's Health One nonemergency response team, operated by the Seattle Fire Department.

Though every council member and Harrell agree on the need for police alternatives, the city doesn't have a cohesive vision of how to fund those alternatives.

Though the council never cut funding for a single police officer, the department has gone from 1,348 sworn personnel in 2020 to 1,137 in June 2022, as over 400 officers have either quit or retired, and SPD has struggled to hire at the same rate.

Police departments in other cities and different departments within Seattle have struggled with similar attrition. However, Nelson and others say politics and morale related to the defund movement have contributed to the exodus of police.

In addition to partially lifting the provisos to provide hiring bonuses up to $30,000 for SPD hires, Nelson says it's important the city not further reduce the department's budget, even as some duties are moved away from SPD.

"I do not believe that we should be taking money out of SPD to do that. I think we're talking both and, not either/or," Nelson said.

Many details of the city's next steps toward police reform are tied up in ongoing police union negotiations and the new administration.

Harrell will present his first proposed budget later this week and is expected to release a white paper later this year on an undefined potential third public safety department that would work separate of fire and police. In a recent "term sheet" — a less binding memorandum of understanding between the council and Harrell — both parties agree to introduce a plan in October for some alternative response that will be operational in 2023.

Deputy Mayor Monisha Harrell declined to share details of the potential third department but said the administration's 2023 budget will include funding for some components of the department, with the intent of it being operational in 2024.

Morales said that despite seemingly symbiotic relationships in City Hall, agreeing on how to implement reform is still an uphill battle.

"Everybody seems to be in agreement on [creating alternatives], but then when we actually try to do it, we get a lot of resistance," Morales said. "So I'm a little bit confused about how we are going to help the police do actual police work better if we don't actually fund ways to reassign the things that don't require a gun in a badge."

For activists, even if the city can align on alternative response, it will fall short of the demands made in 2020.

"We were the only city in the country to see the total [police] budget drop two years in a row, and we hold on to that as a huge win," Cházaro said. "... But we are going to have to hold the line to see the kind of public safety community members actually want."


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