Is Seattle less safe with 26 fewer cops than we had last year? That was the question at City Hall on Monday when Mayor Mike McGinn proposed a budget that would counter an $18 million shortfall next year in part by leaving open 26 vacant officer positions at the Seattle Police Department, saving $2.4 million next year.
The idea is something of an experiment, McGinn explained, that involved leaving positions empty this year as officers quit or retired. If cops leave next year, the city will replace them, but the positions empty now would stay empty, resulting in a city police force of 1,301 officers.
Not surprisingly, the Seattle City Council protested.
"I hear continued frustration in neighborhoods like Belltown and the U-District that we don't have enough police presence to change street-level crime," said Council Member Sally Clark, a member of the council's Public Safety Committee. Meanwhile, the committee chair, Tim Burgess, said he would need to analyze the mayor's proposal. "We clearly have significant street crime and disorder issues in some neighborhoods," Burgess said, taking an apparent dig at McGinn's veto of an aggressive solicitation bill last year.
But these claims that public safety is suffering seem a political canard (both Burgess and Clark have indicated they may run against McGinn for mayor in 2013, and a tough-on-crime platform is the staple of vacuous politics).
If the slight downturn in cops this year impacted public safety, it's apparently made Seattle safer.
The latest police statistics show crime in Seattle is at a 55-year low. Even with the existing staff levels—again, 26 fewer cops than last year—the city is exceeding metrics of its Neighborhood Policing Plan adopted in 2007. For example: Response to 911 calls through June of this year averaged six minutes and 18 seconds (less than the city's target of seven minutes), 34 percent of officer time is considered on-duty and available (above the 30 percent recommended), and 10 squad cars are available for backup at any given time (in line with the city's goals). The current staffing levels also provide a near-record 545 patrol officers on the street.
"I wish the feedback from neighborhood businesses matched up with the numbers cited to support the budget proposal," said Clark.
But anecdotal evidence that some people feel underpoliced seems an impractical way to run a city—or shape a budget. Reinstating $2.4 million for the police department would require taking $2.4 million from somewhere else, and the onus is on council members to prove it should come out of parks, libraries, or human services (which already have been cut by tens of millions of dollars in recent years while the police budget has remained untouched).
"We all know there is a high-profile push to increase the number of police officers over time," McGinn said. But gauging public safety simply by counting cops, he contended, is "lunging toward the wrong finish line."
The council will make the final decisions when it passes the city's 2012 budget in November.