Despite talk of "community policing," Seattle voters have been stripped of an opportunity to approve or disapprove of a controversial $149 million North Seattle police precinct project—the most expensive police station in the nation.
A slim five-member majority of the Seattle City Council intends to rush through a resolution endorsing the construction of the station on Monday.
The resolution, written by Council Member Lorena González, shaves $11 million off a projected price tag that had ballooned in recent years from $80 to $160 million. She says it has the support of four of her other nine colleagues: Tim Burgess, Sally Bagshaw, Debora Juarez, and Bruce Harrell.
In an unusual move, González wants the resolution, which was not approved through the council's committee process, introduced and voted upon in the same day by the full council. Per the council rules, she'll need a two thirds majority—or one additional council member—in order push it through. Council Members Mike O'Brien and Kshama Sawant are firmly opposed to the project. Lisa Herbold and Rob Johnson appear to be skeptical.
Proponents say the current precinct is old and crowded, necessitating the need for a new building with a community space, parking garage, and underground firing range where officers will undergo an expanded, federally-mandated regimen of training.
The cost, and what it signals about the city's priorities during an official homelessness emergency and housing crisis, is a huge concern for many. For the Seattle Times editorial board, the money could be better spent on fixing hazardous infrastructure. For Black Lives Matter activists, it should be spent on affordable housing and social services, not police still under federal supervision for using excessive force. Sawant says $149 million could be used to build approximately 930 units of subsidized and low-income housing.
The trimming of just $11 million, or seven percent, from the cost of the precinct came as a surprise. González told a meeting of community activists last month she was "frankly offended" by the $160 million price tag. She promised to "shrink that considerably" before moving forward, but wouldn't say by how much.
There's another big objection, however: At one point, officials planned to give Seattle voters the chance to approve or disapprove of the police station.
Mayor Ed Murray publicly stated his intention to advance a public safety levy two years ago. The levy would have funded the precinct and other projects. But back in April, the mayor announced he would not send the precinct project or a levy to voters—dashing plans for a referendum on whether the city should fund the project in its current form.
"Because of our vibrant local economy and vigorous real estate sales, we can construct our new North Precinct within existing and projected resources," Murray said. “While we do have other public safety infrastructure projects on the horizon, there is no need to send a public safety levy to the ballot in near future."
Instead, officials now plan to use taxes on real estate sales and other existing funding, along with bonds, for the precinct. They're also raising taxes on businesses in order to fund the hiring of 200 more police officers.
"I'm pissed the city is raising fees on both small and big business to pay for cop tech and the North precinct," said Capitol Hill restaurateur David Meinert. "[It] would be okay if it was for social services, which is what the city needs to spend more on, to help with the crime street level businesses care about."
González, a former civil rights attorney whose own family has experienced police brutality, often talks of the need for "community policing" that is not institutionally racist—changing the department into a genuine source of community security.
"We shouldn't have to choose between being protected in a mass shooting spree and constitutional, bias-free policing," she said in an e-mailed statement. "That's a false choice."
Council Member Debora Juarez, a former public defender who represents North Seattle and strongly supports the precinct project, says the station will serve "all of Seattle."
Still, if the citizens organizing against the new police station can't get their representatives on the council to block the project, then short of a citywide vote there's no other way for the city as a whole—and in particular communities of color with a fractured relationship with the police department—to consent to or reject the police station.
The Black Lives Matter movement has turned out in droves, packing City Hall and dominating public comment sessions with their opposition to the precinct. #BlocktheBunker trended on Twitter this week.
Trust in Seattle police among the city's black population has worsened, not improved, since 2013. Forty-two percent of African-Americans disapprove of the department, according to a survey conducted by the federal monitor last year.
The North precinct project has been in the works since 1998 and has repeatedly been advanced by prior city councils, but during those years, the Seattle police department was not under a consent decree to address federal concerns about racial bias and excessive force. And this was long before the age of smartphones and high-profile police shootings of unarmed African-Americans.
Most of the police officers who sued the federal government in 2014 to block common sense use of force reforms—rules designed to stop them from beating people up—are from the North precinct.
This post has been updated since its original publication.