Having helped bring a halt to plans for an expensive new North Seattle police station, the city’s Block the Bunker campaign—an organized local group of Black Lives Matter activists and supporters—has moved on to seventeen new demands, including: “Do not hire 200 more police officers... We demand that the City of Seattle prioritize the health, power, and future of our communities by divesting from policing and prisons.”
“We respectfully disagree with that concept,” said Sergeant Sean Whitcomb, a spokesperson for Seattle police.
Mayor Ed Murray, with the blessing of the city council, has raised business taxes in order to fund the additional police officers. The council will make decisions about how to budget those tax revenues over the next month, with Murray unveiling his specific budget proposals yesterday.
Without getting into the data (that's for a later post), here are two viewpoints from very different sides of the debate over the number of police Seattle should have. Keep in mind, these are not the only two viewpoints that exist out there. Among supporters of increasing the number of Seattle cops, and among Seattle activists pushing for police reform, there is a wide spectrum of thought.
Kirsten Harris-Talley, a married black woman and mother of two, has lived in Rainier Valley for twelve years and works for a political nonprofit. She joined Block the Bunker this year as a volunteer.
In an interview, Harris-Talley said Block the Bunker’s number one priority is to “invest in community.” Poverty is the underlying cause of crime, she said—echoing Aristotle, who called poverty the "parent of revolution and crime." She suggested the city begin with more affordable housing to address the ongoing housing crisis.
Harris-Talley said there is consensus among Block the Bunker campaigners that police should be, in the end, abolished. She traces the origins of America’s police to slave-catchers. “How do you reform an institution that from its inception was made to control, maim, condemn, and kill people?" she asked. "Reform it back to what?”
This isn’t to say there aren’t currently individual officers with good intentions who do positive things for their community, Harris-Talley said. “I’m in the South end,” she told me. “[Detective Denise Bouldin] Cookie is a good officer. She’s good people.”
But, she called those officers “exceptions to the rule.”
Harris-Talley conceded that police abolition is far from political reality.
“Block the Bunker is not living in some idealistic balloon,” she said. “We have seventeen demands [on our website]. We are doing what any campaign does. You leverage the demands in the order of public will and visibility.”
That means starting with opposition to the proposal to add 200 more police. “If our city really wants to be progressive, they can take heed,” she warned. “We're not going to stop.”
Naturally, Whitcomb—who’s been with SPD for about two decades—sees things differently. Here’s what he called his “elevator pitch” to the skeptics:
“We have to be particularly sensitive to the concerns of people of color,” Whitcomb said. “That has historically been negative. Here in Seattle specifically.”
He continued: “This is work that the current generation of police has been working hard to address and repair. We hope that things will improve in the next generation of policing. These are the folks being hired now.”
In previous generations, Whitcomb said, the quality of police service "depended on who you are and where you lived."
What has been done to fix those problems? Whitcomb cited the department’s mandatory bias-free policing training and the reforms implemented so far under the Department of Justice consent decree. “We are aware of the concerns,” he said. “We're working with a lot of energy to be the police department that people want and deserve... Things have changed significantly and are on a trajectory to continue to improve.”
Whitcomb said the 200 more officers are needed to keep up with the city’s growth and to meet people’s expectations that officers arrive quickly in emergencies. He cited a study commissioned by the department last year.
"Whether it's sexual assault, 'Someone stole my car and I need to work my two jobs to pay rent,' whether it's harassment or assault or robbery, domestic violence—there's a tremendous amount of work that we do that is the core reason to have a police department," Whitcomb told me. "The reason we need more officers is the city has grown. Calls for service have increased. Yes, we're being more efficient and doing the best we can with the staff we have. That said, we need to ensure that the residents of the city, the people who visit and work here, the people who go to school, have the police services available if and when they need them."