In the first Seattle City Council election since the defund movement, candidates are starting to pick sides on the hot-button issue. But one candidate bravely took up a lane all his own–the center. Well, until he backed down, that is.
District 4 city council candidate Ron Davis bent the rules during a MLK Labor forum this week when he raised a sign that read “Both/And” in response to the most controversial yes-or-no question of the night: “Do you believe it was a mistake for the Seattle City Council to pledge to defund the Seattle Police Department by 50%” during the 2020 protests?
The moderator, Shaun Scott, told Davis he would forfeit his closing remarks if he did not use the cards MLK Labor provided, a trick Scott’s seen before from his 2019 council competitor Alex Pedersen. When pressed by Scott, who is an abolitionist, Davis abandoned his middle-of-the-road principles and joined his pro-cop competition, Maritza Rivera, in holding up a “yes” sign.
In a Twitter thread later that night, Davis expanded on the stunt he chickened out on. He wrote that the Black Lives Matter advocates had the right idea about cops, but it was “TACTICALLY” a mistake for the council to pledge support to those advocates’ high-level plan to reallocate 50% of the police budget to other forms of public safety. The vote did not make improvements to policing or stand up alternatives but rather sewed division and made progress more difficult to achieve, he argued.
He’s right that the City did not live up to its promise. Not even close.
Mayor Bruce Harrell moved quickly to pass hiring bonuses for cops but has dragged his feet on police alternatives. Last month, the Seattle Times reported that Harrell was running behind on his commitments to launch a third public safety department and a dispatch team to respond to calls that don’t require a gun to resolve.
But the City must arguably negotiate changes to police responsibilities in the Seattle Police Officer Guild's (SPOG) new contract, unless they want to risk the union filing an unfair labor practice claim and losing political favor with cops. As we’ve explained in the past, if he really wanted to prioritize safety, Harrell could just disregard that potential challenge from the cops and create alternative programs. The City is currently bargaining that contract behind closed doors, so we don’t know how aggressively the City is pushing for anything.
The council does not sit at the bargaining table, but five members serve on the Labor Relations Policy Committee. That committee sets some ground rules for the Mayor’s bargaining team to make sure SPOG and the City aren’t working toward a contract doomed to fail when the council votes to ratify it. So some council members will have more sway in these conversations, but others will only get a vote on the union’s final contract, which could seal the fate of police alternatives for years to come.
Since Davis cheated at MLK Labor’s game and council members usually get a moment to speak before a vote, I asked the candidates what they would add to their rapid-fire response. Every single candidate wants police alternatives, but there is less confidence on how exactly to get there with SPOG standing in the way.
One Lone Defunder in District 1
In District 1, which includes West Seattle, Georgetown, and South Park, only one of four candidates in attendance flashed a “No” card. Maren Costa, who was wrongfully fired for organizing workers for climate action at Amazon, said the council’s didn’t mistakenly endorse defunding police at 50%.
Costa said the commitment “shifted the Overton window,” and added that the council had the obligation to hear and respect the overwhelming demand of the time. Now, she wants to focus on quickly setting up a third public safety department. That’s what they’re all saying, Costa!
Costa did not provide new strategies to press SPOG or the City’s bargaining team, but she doesn’t buy that the SPOG contract presents a barrier to standing up a third public safety department, arguing that the contract does not have a clear scope of work language.
Eltana co-founder Stephen Brown said he wants to spend more money on Pride, Dignity, Action (PDA), which manages the diversion program LEAD and handles the state right-of-way encampment removals. When it comes to negotiating with SPOG for a full-fledged alternative, Brown said “we need to be smart about taking a long view of the negotiations–steady incremental change and understanding the face-saving needs of all involved.”
Tech lawyer Rob Saka and clinical social worker Preston Anderson did not respond to my request for comment.
Three “No” Votes in District 3
In District 3, which includes Capitol Hill, the Central District, and Madison Park, more candidates supported the council’s decision than opposed it.
Urbanist and former nonprofit exec Alex Hudson and cannabis-grower and food advocate Joy Hollingsworth said the council made a mistake in supporting the 50% demand.
In a follow-up with The Stranger Hudson and Hollingsworth both said the council had good intentions, but the commitment did not lead to anything. Hudson wrote that breaking the promise “furthered distrust between community and government and created a fissure to doing the important and necessary policy work of moving toward a society less reliant on policing to create real safety.” Hollingsworth said she would put “values into action” by conducting community engagement, developing “smart policy,” and standing up systems to keep neighborhoods safe.
On the other hand, urbanist prosecutor Efrain Hudnell, theater kid environmentalist Ry Armstrong, and LGBTQ+ Commission Co-chair Andrew Ashiofu said the council’s support was not a mistake.
Hudnell argued it would have been a mistake not to listen to the community at that moment. “I think we can all get behind the idea that what we want from our council is the willingness to listen and the audacity to try something bold.”
Regardless of how they answered the rapid-fire question, all the candidates said they want police alternatives. Of course, everyone in the fucking City says that–except for SPOG President Mike Sloan, who the City is treating as an obstacle.
When asked how to stand up alternatives in spite of SPOG, Hudson put the blame on SPOG for not listening to Seattleites and rank-and-file officers who are being forced to do work they are not trained or supported to do. If SPOG doesn’t buck up, Hudson said the council and the Mayor will have to “hold the line.” Similarly, Ashifou said he would not ratify any contract if SPOG does not negotiate in “good faith.”
Hudnell said the City must put the onus on SPOG to show how they can reduce response times and increase crime clearance during the staffing shortage. That should bring the conversation to the “logical conclusion” that SPOG needs alternatives, too. Armstrong suggested the City “meet [SPOG] where they are at” and find a compromise.
Hollingsworth did not respond to my question about the SPOG contract.
50/50 Split in District 5
In District 5, which includes all of North Seattle, half the candidates said “yes” and half said “no.”
Gun control advocate Nilu Jenks and former King County Superior Court judge Cathy Moore said it was a mistake for the council to commit to defunding police by 50%. Social services worker Shane Macomber and social equity consultant ChrisTiana Obeysumner said it was not a mistake.
As Obeysumner told The Stranger, it is not a mistake to acknowledge that policing in its current model is “ineffective, unsustainable, and downright problematic.”
Again, all of them basically agree that the City should re-scope SPD’s role and then take some money from the cops to fund alternatives, some were just more picky about the roundness of the number.
Moore argued that pilot programs for alternative responses do not need to be bargained, and that “terms and conditions” of employment is being too broadly interpreted. As for the contract, she said the council must take a firm position to reject any contract that does not include agreement to an alternative response program.
Macomber suggested the City could make a trade with SPOG: More hiring bonuses in exchange for allowing the City to take away responsibilities SPD “never wanted” in the first place.