Mayor Jenny Durkan held another press conference on Tuesday to criticize Seattle City Council and their efforts to defund police by 50% and reallocate funding to community-led public health and safety. The Mayor, and Police Chief Carmen Best argued that any police officer layoffs whatsoever would be ill-advised and basically impossible.

Council President M. Lorena González responded with sharp words of her own during budget committee today.

“The mayor is spreading misinformation and fear… to undermine our collective efforts on the council,” González said. “She’s hoping efforts to defund and demilitarize the police will blow over.”

Cyclical Arguments

While we’ve all been through this back-and-forth before and it’s beginning to feel like a cyclical argument, I’ll summarize the case once more before moving to possible ways out of this policy deadlock. Options include removing Mayor Durkan and replacing her with a pro-defund mayor, laying off all officers and forcing them to reapply for their jobs, blocking a police contract unless it includes the ability to fire officers with documented excessive force and misconduct, or all of the above.

The Seattle Police Department (SPD) has about 1,400 sworn officers and an approved budget of $409 million before the rebalancing package–nearly 30% of the City’s general fund. A grassroots campaign led by coalitions such as Decriminalize Seattle and King County Equity Now has pressed for a 50% cut to that budget as soon as possible and seven of nine Seattle City Councilmembers have signed on. Only Alex Pedersen and Debora Juarez have refused to sign.

The adopted 2020 SPD budget has ballooned to $409 million. (City of Seattle)
The adopted 2020 SPD budget has ballooned to $409 million. (City of Seattle)

Protesters have been in the streets every day since George Floyd was murdered, and supporters have dominated public comment during budget hearings. This sustained public pressure is unprecedented in recent history and it appears to be over the public in Seattle.

Despite the Mayor’s efforts to brand the effort a fringe movement of radicals, recent polling has suggested a majority of Seattle voters support defunding SPD and shifting resources toward community-led health and safety. An EMC Research poll found the margin was 53% support to 45% opposition toward the proposal to “permanently cut the Seattle Police Department’s budget by 50% and shift that money to social services and community-based programs.”

Facing that pressure, the Mayor and Chief say SPD is doing such a great job that it’s widely cited as a national leader. They argue proposed funding cuts would undermine reform initiatives they portray as successful and cite racial bias training as an example–notwithstanding no data to support their efficacy of that training. Despite more than two months of violent police clashes with protesters with videos showing clear evidence of excessive police force, the Mayor and Chief have revealed no disciplinary measures against officers. They’ve only said that investigations are ongoing and the Office of Police Accountability is working on it.

In contrast, the City Council contends existing SPD reform efforts are wholly inadequate, citing police brutality and the lack of deescalation during the protests as proof of that. Sending officers, particularly armed officers, into too many situations and overpolicing communities of color are root problems for the Defund side.

Reducing the number of police officers is a net positive, particularly when funding is then funneled into social services that serve disadvantaged communities and a punitive approach is replaced with restorative justice and investment in disadvantaged communities.

Weeks of public discourse between the Mayor and Council have echo these points. Instead of getting bogged down in the intrigue and repeated arguments, let’s look at some possible ways out of this impasse.

Idea 1: Remove Mayor Durkan, Appoint Pro-Defund Mayor

Impeaching and removing the Mayor has been floating around as an idea since police crackdowns on protesters began. It’s gained powerful backers in the 36th District Democrats, 37th District Democrats, and 43rd District Democrats. A Change.org recall Durkan petition has surpassed 42,000 signatures.

Some have cautioned that removing Durkan could be a distraction. However, as the Mayor continues to wage a misinformation campaign against defunding and threatens use of her veto power–as she did earlier this week to impede a Covid relief package–it’s becoming clearer the 50% defund goal is impossible under the Durkan administration.

The problem is what comes next after the Mayor is removed. A leader would need to step forward with a plan to bring a defiant police department to heel and keep the Defund coalition together and overcome pushback while it’s being implementing. This might mean replacing Chief Best despite her remaining fairly popular in public opinion polls despite all the department’s recent shenanigans. Perhaps a firmer mayor could get Chief Best to cooperate–not to mention negotiate a much better contract with the police guild that leaves avenues for downsizing and weeding out bad cops open. In other words, it’s not an easy job.

Idea 2: Lay Off Everyone, Rehire ‘Good Cops’

Last in, first out tradition at the Public Safety Civil Service Commission, which governs firing decisions, complicates weeding out officers with a record of misconduct and makes it all but impossible without a cooperative police chief–which we don’t have. One idea to work around that problem is to fire everyone and then rehire the officers with clean records and a commitment to deescalation–but the Chief again would ultimately make the call. Obviously, the police guild would hate this and seek to whip up a public backlash and stoke fears of a crime wave. To avoid this, it’d have to be a carefully orchestrated plan.

The layoffs and rehires would have to happen on a rolling basis to provide continuity of service for core police functions like investigating violent crime and theft. Supporters would have to lay out a clear vision to overcome pushback and counter false claims that crime is increasing.

Based on how they’ve reacted thus far, it’s likely the police guild won’t just work the media–conservative-leaning media have been all too willing to broadcast their claims without fact-checking. They’ll also try to fabricate stories, such as when a shattered candle becomes an “improvised explosive device.” Facing large-scale layoffs, the police guild may well order work slowdowns or stoppages rather than cooperate with a plan that cuts their ranks.

The City would be walking a tight-rope, but the police guild might end up further tarnishing their image if they stand in the way of the restructure plan.

Option 3: Block Contract Unless Firing Bad Cops Is Made Easy

The police contract is due for renegotiation and renewal at the end of 2020. The last negotiation in 2018 was a trainwreck negotiated in secrecy that stripped out recently added accountability measures. Only one councilmember–Kshama Sawant–voted against the contract. However, there’s many reasons to hope this time will be different.

The politically powerful MLK County Labor Council expelled the Seattle Police Officers Guild (SPOG) from its ranks in June. Ongoing protests have put the issue of police accountability front and center, and the Seattle City Council has shifted to the Left. Two councilmembers that tended to side with police and not rocking the boat–Bruce Harrell and Sally Bagshaw–have retired and more stridently progressive members in Tammy Morales and Andrew Lewis have replaced them. If Mayor Durkan seeks to fold to police demands like last time, that may be the final straw in City Council removing her.

That’s not to say it will be easy. Police will seek to split the labor movement by making it a collective bargaining rights issue. Advocates will need to make clear they are not setting a precedent for all union negotiations by emphasizing that police guilds are unique: police are given the license to kill and then bargain for near impunity from consequences, unlike any other union.

The police may simply refuse to sign the contract. Without a contract, the City should seek to proceed with the officer reductions targeted at the worst offenders. If police are able to block firings even with an expired contract, it makes the mass firing and partial rehire route seem more necessary. Defund advocates could use a good lawyer to walk us through the finer points of police contract negotiations and what happens when police are working without an active contract–it may just default to the terms of the old contract. But roughly speaking, the deck is stacked against us for now, and we may actually need to change state labor laws to strip out anti-accountability measures for police.

What’s Next

More options exist than these three, but it roughly seems like where we’re headed based on our current trajectory and they offer ways to make 50% a reality. Another route: Minneapolis City Council has vowed to abolish their current police department and rebuild it from the ground up, similar to the mass firing and rehire option. FOr middle ground folks, abolish could be seen as scarier language than defund, but a completely new structure could be enticing considering the entrenched complacency and casual violence of the existing one.

In the short term, the existing union contract will make rapid layoffs challenging as the City Council grapples with changes. Councilmember Sawant has argued they should just reduce the remaining unspent 2020 police budget by 50%, which amounts to a $85 million cut, whatever the fallout may be. Her colleagues seem to prefer a more cautious approach to avoid running afoul of the SPOG’s contract or labor laws more broadly and overspending funds–should the reallocated money be unrecoverable due to layoffs being delayed by appeals or legal wrangling.

The short-term disagreement may make it harder to keep the Defund movement united and focused on the long-term goals, but hopefully everyone can make peace with the compromise and turn their united energies toward the next budget fight and the more equitable public safety system that comes next.

The featured image is by Enrico Doan.

Update: This article has been updated to note last in, first out isn’t in SPOG’s contract. It’s a guideline of the Public Safety Civil Service Commission with a big loophole for the Police Chief to go out of order “in the interest of efficient operation of his or her department.”

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Doug Trumm is The Urbanist's Executive Director. An Urbanist writer since 2015, he dreams of pedestrianizing streets, blanketing the city in bus lanes, and unleashing a mass timber building spree to end the affordable housing shortage and avert our coming climate catastrophe. He graduated from the Evans School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Washington. He lives in East Fremont and loves to explore the city on his bike.

11 COMMENTS

  1. It’s my understanding that if the police union contract expires, it still remains completely in force until a new contract is negotiated. I think the biggest problem with the defund movement is there is no precedent for doing this so we don’t know if it will work. It seems understandable that folks are scared that crime will get out of control. The OTHER big problem is that anarchists are deeply involved in the BLM movement and they sincerely want the abolition of all cops, jail, courts, and prisons, which is crazypants. They are not shy about saying that defund is merely a step towards abolition.

  2. There are some good and necessary proposals here, along with some silly ones. But shouldn’t your “options include” (at least) maintaining the police capability to respond to crime-in-progress calls?

    • I assume you’re referring to option 2? I mentioned rolling layoffs to maintain ability to respond. Obviously there would be a bit less capacity, but it’d likely be enough for the essentials like violent crime in progress.

      It might sound drastic, I think the police will do work slowdowns and generally throw a fit as soon as even minor structural reforms are put into motion. There will be blowback either way. We might as go big and try to get the most lasting benefit.

      • “Go big” and “try to get the most lasting benefit” are not at all presumptively the same thing. More progress is made by bricklayers than bomb-throwers.

        • Response to violent crime in progress is actually one of the most obvious re-do’s that ought to be done on an immediate and “bricklaying” basis.

          About 5% of police time is spent on violent crime, and 1% of calls for service involve violent crimes, with many of those after the fact. So, if what we wanted was capability for a very rapid response to violent crimes in progress – about 0.5% of police calls – would we:

          – have a lot of folks who are indeed armed and trained to use force, but not specialized in urgent response to violent incidents, mostly driving around semi-randomly spending 95% of their time doing things for which that training is ireelevant?

          or

          – create a small specialized force which we would use data to position in optimal ways to handle those rare occasions with urgency and a sterling level of skill and preparation?

          #2 most likely

  3. I’m hoping the council’s proposal is going to work. But, at the same time, I come across articles like this, which give me pause:

    https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/homeless/seattle-city-council-votes-to-defund-team-that-removes-homeless-encampments-in-victory-for-activists/

    Considering the large number of homeless encampments that have sprouted up over the years, if it really is the policy of the city to just do nothing and let people camp anywhere, it seems a matter of time before parks all over the city fill up with tents, to the point where they no longer function as parks anymore. Many of the people occupying such camps have mental problems, which makes walking, picnicking, or doing anything else nearby uncomfortable and possibly dangerous, not to mention the shear amount of space taken up by tent after tent.

    I understand that people who don’t have homes need somewhere to go, but, in most cases, shelters are available, people just choose not to use them. Is there some other plan to keep parks clear, or is the idea that it is simply elitist and unreasonable for middle-class people to expect to be able to enjoy parks while others are sleeping on the streets?

    • You seem to imply homeless sweeps make homeless people disappear while lenient policies make them sprout and multiply. This is not the actual relationship. Homeless sweeps only push encampments to other parts of the city while traumatizing people on the way. Getting people into supportive housing is proven to break the cycle of homelessness. Sweeps are not.

      The upheaval makes it harder for homelessness service providers to reach homeless people and build enough trust to get them to accept services. That is one reason why the City’s nonprofit partners were no longer interested in participating with the Navigation Teams. The heavy presence of police officers was also was a big roadblock to building trust. How could the sweep described here build trust? https://www.theurbanist.org/2020/05/28/finding-home-as-covid-compounds-housing-crisis/

      The point is to maintain lines of communication with people experiencing homelessness. In the midst of a pandemic, the offer of a shelter space is more unattractive than ever due to risk of coronavirus transmission in congregate settings. The offer of a tiny house or supportive housing could still be enticing.

      Keeping parks accessible is still a priority for the city, and from what I’ve seen they are.

  4. I just want to throw out there that listening to people in my office (news at 11 watching folk) that they do not see a difference between defund and abolish. As far as they can figure out defund = half as many officers fighting crime and that’s it.

    They do not get the nuance of shifting certain kinds of calls to other departments. Nor, and I think this is the big one, understand what percentage of 911 calls are “theres an axe murderer in my house” and “my neighbors are being too noisy”. Or put another way how many calls actually need an armed officer and how many just need a guy in a name tag to take a report and hand out a fine.

    So the council really needs to be crystal clear in what outcome it is trying to achieve. And not just hand wavey pleasantries, “50% cut”. They are just giving fuel to their opponents who are and will continue to lean in on the fear angle. If they don’t dispel that fear with the light of clear objectives than the fear will win out.

    Far as I can tell that boils down to at its core

    1) Officers accused of serious misconduct should be investigated by a completely outside department. No one not the Chief or the Mayor should be able to override them when they say “fire ’em”. They should have no more legal job protection than anyone else. Arguably less, since they are the only job where killing someone on purpose is a possibility. <<the council should build a list of ridiculous officer conduct but who still have their jobs, but had they worked anywhere else would have been fired. Lack of examples allows opponents to pretend their are no real issues and everyone is just making things up.

    2) Improved training. City likely needs to establish its own police academy as it is clear that outside training does not meet the standards the city desires. Allowing officers/the union to go to non-approved training is a whole other problem as it undermines whatever good training they had already received.

    3) Make a distinction between what kind of Police calls need an armed officer and what kinds just need an official to take a report (for insurance purposes) and/or issue fines/citations. There are potential cost savings here as someone taking reports does not need the kind of hazard pay/insurance our current catch-all officers require.

    4) A serious review of how Police are currently deployed and how they patrol. Personally from my POV it seems all they do is drive around neighborhoods with no interaction with anyone living/working there. Other than rather pointless community meetings which seem to be a PR stunt. Never once has an officer come into our business to chat us up, despite us being in one the "worst" neighborhoods and situated directly across from a park that is popular with our van dwelling population. Only interaction we ever had was when we reported a burglary, which for some reason resulted in three officers showing up just to take a report for insurance.

    5) Place a higher emphasis on having officers living inside the city boundaries. It makes a big difference if you live in town instead of merely working in town. The fact that our Chief of Police lives an hour outside of the city is ridiculous.

    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts, J.S. Agree articulating a vision and controlling the narrative is important but it is challenging. Police have built such a strong media apparatus with TV news and conservative media outlets that really have a megaphone. They can present simplified arguments that bend the truth and present a ton of work for City Council and Defund advocates to counter. Fear spreads like wildfire, but not as much a nuanced plan charting a careful transition from a militarized and punitive policing model to a much more surgically tailored model of police focused on deescalation and improving community outcomes–but one that has to navigate through a series of institutional hurdles that make timelines squishy.

      • You’ve just illustrated the problem you’re talking about. Your last sentence observes that “Fear spreads like wildfire, but not as much a nuanced plan,” and then takes four more lines to say what you mean–shedding readers all along the way.

Comments are closed.