A wall of police with riot shields outside East Precinct.
Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda documented the scene at East Precinct Saturday June 9th. Police block protesters then as they blocked they continue to block their demands for divesting from policing. (Credit: Teresa Mosqueda)

The Seattle Police Department (SPD) has a special privilege granted to no other department in the City. The City allocates funding to SPD for positions the agency admits it cannot fill next year. Using rosy projections for hiring and separations, Mayor Jenny Durkan hopes to boost the agency to 1,230 employees next year via the 35 net additional officers in her budget proposal. However, her 2022 budget funds SPD for 1,357 employees due to SPD’s unique privilege of keeping “ghost” positions in its budget.

Council President M. Lorena González proposed abrogating 101 of those excess positions to free up $19 million in the general fund for other investments like alternative 911 police response and put the agency on firmer ground for budget transparency. However, in a close 5-4 vote on Thursday, her colleagues rejected that amendment. Budget Chair Teresa Mosqueda, Tammy Morales, and Kshama Sawant were the Councilmembers to support the amendment. (More on this debate below.)

In another vote Thursday, Councilmembers rejected an amendment from Councilmember Lisa Herbold that would have cut $2.4 million from the Center City streetcar project and shelved it once more, but transportation Chair Alex Pedersen was the only colleague to back her anti-streetcar amendment. It was a quiet end to what had been gearing up to be another streetcar showdown orchestrated by its most vociferous critic in Herbold.

The Council will vote to approve the amended 2022 City budget at the full council this afternoon, which will conclude Council’s budget season.

Solidarity Budget wins

While some advocates had hoped for more dramatic changes to the Mayor’s budget proposal, the Solidarity Budget coalition did note many improvements they fought for and won in the amended budget set to be passed. The group, which has argued for divesting from conventional policing in order invest in alternative justice models and social services, says Seattle will be only major city in the country with a smaller police budget in 2022 than in 2021.

One way the Solidarity Budget and its allies achieved this was by beating back amendments from Pedersen and Andrew Lewis that would have spent rainy day funds to increase funding to SPD and add hiring incentives, a priority of the Mayor. Ultimately, the argument that rainy day funds should be reserved for real emergencies won the day.

The Solidarity Budget’s transportation budget (which I helped craft) won several key asks including addressing missing sidewalks by adding $2 million for sidewalks in Southeast Seattle and $1 million for home zone street calming projects. The Council’s budget also increased Vision Zero safety funding via a commercial parking tax (CPT) increase sponsored by Councilmember Andrew Lewis.

The CPT hike also partially backs $100 million in bridge maintenance bonds that Pedersen has been advocating for since his failed push last year and appears to have finally secured passage. The majority of funding for the next 20 years of debt payments on the $100 million bond remain unspecified and will have to be scraped from future transportation budgets.

Why the City Council is keeping SPD ghost positions

In her comments before her no vote on Gonzalez’s ghost position amendment, Public Safety Chair Lisa Herbold said she didn’t want to be seen as dictating that 1,256 officers was the right staffing level for SPD. She worried about the message that would send to Seattleites worried about emergency response times.

González disagreed with that point of view, and argued Council was just bringing the police budget in line with the transparency and accountability principles that other City departments follow.

Interim Police Chief Adrian Diaz came out hard against the amendment one hour before the meeting by recording an inflammatory and melodramatic video statement that framed the amendment as eliminating 101 officers from the department and leading to increased response times even though the abrogated positions are vacant and not expected to be filled in the next two years in the agency’s staffing plans, as SPD is already maxing out its pipeline for new officers, who must go through state training before they can be sworn and deployed.

“Over the past year we have already lost 325 officers to retirements, resignations, and cuts. That’s essentially like cutting our entire North, West and Southwest precincts,” Diaz said. “But the Council President’s amendment would permanently eliminate another 101 officers. This would greatly jeopardize the safety of our communities and have long term impacts on investigating violent crimes on and caring for our most vulnerable.”

Diaz seemed to argue that SPD needed the ghost positions to respond to 911 calls, solve crimes, and respond to natural disasters.

“More cuts mean longer 911 response times, no staffing to adequately investigate violent crime, support large scale events, and if there is a natural disaster or major crisis, we cannot offer support to our local, state, and federal partners.”

It’s not clear how vacant and unfillable positions help with any of that. Council President González bristled at Diaz’s interfering with the legislative process with his misleading statements, saying they were either “gross, intentional misrepresentation” or a “gross misunderstanding” of her amendment.

“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. “Nothing in my amendment proposes eliminating funded or filled positions. This is why it’s incomprehensible to me that the interim chief implies otherwise.”

The Seattle Police Department has a history of huge overtime expenses — leading to a $30 million planned overtime request in last year’s budget proposal — and a poor track record of controlling costs and tracking overtime. SPD’s highest paid police officer pulled in $414,543 in 2019 thanks to incredible amount of overtime pay basically equating to 80-hour weeks. Additionally, 274 hours of earnings were mysteriously unaccounted for when the Seattle Times sought to verify agency records.

The vote may have come down to how some Councilmembers read the results of 2021 city election, which saw González’s mayoral bid soundly rejected and two more defeats (albeit much closer) for self-described prison abolitionists (Nicole Thomas-Kennedy and Nikkita Oliver). Some Councilmembers seem ready for a truce with SPD and have walked back some of their most aggressive police accountability rhetoric staked out in the summer of 2020, when protests filled the streets and halving SPD’s budget seemed on the agenda.

Despite Chief Diaz’s efforts to blame González and Council for SPD’s staffing woes, staffing up at SPD will ultimately be a war of attrition.

“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,” Paul Kiefer wrote in PubliCola. “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.”

If SPD fails to stem the tide of departures in a big way and also has to let go of a good chunk of its officers who refuse to get vaccinated for Covid (despite the City and State mandates), Durkan’s hopes of adding 35 net new officers next year will be sunk. With their vote today, the Council will have funded the Mayor’s staffing plan. It’s now on SPD and incoming Mayor Bruce Harrell to retain and recruit the officers to meet their promises for increased public safety and incremental police reform at SPD.

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Doug Trumm is publisher of The Urbanist. 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 in 2019. He lives in East Fremont and loves to explore the city on his bike.