At a budget meeting this afternoon, the Seattle City Council decided to return the city’s parking cops to the Seattle Police Department (SPD) after an apparently pointless, two-year stint in the Department of Transportation (SDOT). The move essentially ends a long “debate about nothing,” as Council Member Kshama Sawant described the conflict over where to put the parking cops, and frees up about $8 million for the Council to spend on other priorities. 

Instead of spending those savings on fully funding a new approach to addressing crime downtown–which would, incidentally, partly fulfill demands from the 2020 protesters and also help the city deal with a nationwide cop shortage–the council decided to sprinkle the money around the budget to fund various pet projects. Go team. 

Why Are We Still Fighting about Parking Cops?

Back in 2020, protesters demanded that the City Council defund the Seattle Police Department by 50% and then reinvest that money in anti-poverty programs that reduce crime

The Council did not do that. Instead, they moved parking enforcement officers out of SPD, resulting in the nominal budget reduction that almost every conservative commentator refers to when they claim that the Council “defunded” the police. 

But, as Council Member Lisa Herbold pointed out in today’s meeting, the Council never wanted to move the parking cops to SDOT. They originally intended to move parking officers, along with 911 dispatchers, to the Community Safety and Communications Center (CSCC) to serve as the primary civilian workforce responding to low-level 911 calls. 

The head of the parking cops’ union initially embraced the idea, arguing that the workers were majority BIPOC and multilingual, which would make them good candidates for offering culturally competent public safety responses.

The 2020 council funded the transfer, but former Mayor Jenny Durkan’s administration decided not to implement the move. They were not on board with building the foundation of basically anything you could squint at and call a police alternative, so they dragged their feet until the Council finally agreed to fund a transfer to SDOT in 2021 instead. In a hilariously characteristic act of incompetence, the Durkan administration fucked up that move, too, which is why the City had to pay back $4.5 million in parking tickets this summer. 

So, Who Won the Fight?

Two years later, a different mayor has yet again punked the Council on the parking cops issue. This year, Mayor Bruce Harrell wanted to “refund” the police by returning parking enforcement to SPD, but Council Member and Budget Chair Teresa Mosqueda opposed that move. In her initial edit of the Mayor’s budget, she allocated $8.3 million annually for the next two years to keep the parking cops in SDOT until an “interdepartmental team” could figure out the best place for them to permanently park their asses. 

Mosqueda, however, couldn’t get her colleagues to hold the line on this idiotic conflict with the Mayor. Instead, Council Member Dan Strauss, who represents Ballard, brokered a compromise with five of the other Council members. That compromise let the parking cops return to SPD and let other council members spend the savings on a laundry list of other projects. Mosqueda was the lone “no” vote on Strauss’s grand bargain, with Council Members Sawant and Tammy Morales abstaining.

Spreading those savings to a bunch of different programs wasn’t the only idea for how to use the money the Council unlocked by caving to the Mayor, though. Last week, Council Member Andrew Lewis considered a proposal that would have spent the majority of the savings, roughly $5 million, on fulfilling promises to fully fund Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD), the City’s main jail diversion program.  

Lisa Daugaard, co-executive director of the group that runs LEAD, said in an interview that City leaders repeatedly promised throughout the budget process to fully fund her organization. Based on those promises, Daugaard said LEAD and several other service providers agreed to use those expected funds to support a new pilot program from the Mayor that uses civilians from a local public safety firm called We Deliver Care as a sort of non-cop emphasis patrol on 3rd Avenue. 

With Lewis’s proposal dead on arrival, both the Council and Mayor Harrell have failed to deliver the funding LEAD needs to support the new pilot project on 3rd Ave without cannibalizing its existing outreach programs in other parts of the city. In a statement, Samuel Wolff, LEAD’s senior project manager, said the organization won’t compromise its commitment to the 3rd Ave project, but their “reduced capacity will make it very difficult for us to take on other similar projects in the future.”

So, there you have it. Once again, Seattle’s city leaders have squandered an opportunity to build a foundation for an actual police alternative in favor of spending relatively small amounts on an RV safe parking lot, “activating” City Hall Park, and refilling some of the money from the City’s emergency fund that the Council spent during the early days of the pandemic. 

Of course, if the Council simply increased its tax on large corporations, then we could have all of that and build a police alternative worth the name. It’s not as if the big businesses raking in record profits for the last two years are hurting for cash, after all.