Mayor Jenny Durkan and Seattle Police Department Chief Carmen Best are not thrilled that the Seattle City Council is pursuing further cuts to SPD's budget for 2020. They positioned themselves squarely against the council in a press conference on Tuesday. Disturbingly, they used multiple half-truths and some all-out lies in the process.
On Wednesday, the council is expected to vote the rebalanced 2020 budget plan out of the budget committee so it can be voted on officially next week. That plan includes amendments that would further chip away at SPD's $409 million budget through layoffs, program transfers, and other cuts to SPD's 2020 budget.
Durkan has already proposed $20 million in cuts to SPD's budget this year. She has been clear that that's as far as she's willing to cut. However, most of that money will come from cuts that were already planned due to COVID-19 reductions. While Durkan and Best have said they are committed to "reimagining" policing, it's unclear what that vision is or
when it would occur. UPDATE: According to Kelsey Nyland, a spokesperson for Durkan, Durkan is going to come forward with changes for 2021 around September but "we don’t want to make any concrete commitments" about when exactly the changes would be implemented.
By invoking a specter of slow 911 response times and reduced public safety, Durkan and Best denounced the council's proposed amendments to defund SPD. Best speculated that the council's "concerted efforts to dismantle" SPD was a conspiracy. "It's almost as if some of these folks are concerned that too many folks actually support the police department," Best said.
One narrative that Durkan and Best keep revisiting is that the council is making these budget decisions without looping in Best.
"I am disappointed and a bit surprised that council has never reached out to sit down with the chief," Durkan said. "The only way she can get a voice in now—they don’t call her they don’t consult with her—is to do it by letter."
That is misleading.
Councilmember Lisa Herbold, who chairs the public safety and human services committee, balked at the repeated claim. In a text, Herbold told The Stranger that executive policies which have "existed for years" prevent the council from speaking "directly to department heads or staff" during the budget process. Instead, they ask questions to the council's central staff who then gets answers from the department.
UPDATE: Nyland, with the mayor's office, questioned whether this policy existed and said she and her team hadn't been able to find what Herbold was talking about. Herbold sent The Stranger those rules outlined in the city's pre-budget memos from 2020, 2019, and 2018.
In a memo sent from Best to the council in late July, Best accused the council of not asking questions. She then gave answers to the questions she accused the council of not asking. She said that "lack of awareness of these issues is not an indication of a need for more transparency; rather, it is a clear indication of not doing the work that should be done before making these sorts of wide-ranging recommendations."
But, according to Herbold, those questions had already been asked by the council and answered by council central staffers in a committee meeting a day before Best's letter came. In an email response to Best, Herbold said that Best's letter had "nearly identical information" to what the council learned in a committee meeting the day before.
"Council and community ARE doing the work and SPD staff have, over the last several weeks, been very helpful in getting the answers that council will need to make decisions in the 2020 June rebalancing and beyond," Herbold's response read.
Yet, Durkan and Best continue to spread the false narrative that the council is not collaborating with them.
Durkan also said in Tuesday's press conference—after panning the council—that she was "absolutely willing to work with council on any of the problems before us." Yet last Friday, she vetoed the spending plan included in the JumpStart Seattle progressive payroll tax which passed early last month. In that plan was $86 million in COVID-19 relief.
Durkan reiterated her point that she did not want to drain the city's Rainy Day Fund, as the $86 million in the spending plan would come from those emergency reserves. However, the spending plan she vetoed would have made sure that those funds got paid back in 2021.
Another falsity pushed by Durkan during Tuesday's press conference was the idea that the council was trying to get rid of data-driven policing. Council members have proposed moving the department—which gathers and analyzes data about use of force, stops and detentions, Office of Police Accountability complaints, and other metrics, as well as Consent Decree reports—out of SPD and into the city's Finance and Administrative Services Department, not get rid of it.
"The city council suggests we would be better off if we do not use data," Best said. "Really?"
The data-driven policing work would still be done, just without SPD having control over numbers which may be critical of SPD. Durkan should understand this since she has proposed a similar transfer of civilian departments out of SPD oversight.
"The thing that could really impede transformational change is if this devolves into a political battle," Durkan said, further cementing this as a political battle within the same government.
The layoffs are another big sticking point for Durkan and Best. The council's plan would see a reduction in 100 SPD officers in 2020 through layoffs or attrition. Durkan and Best have continued to argue that layoffs have to be done based on seniority and the newest, most diverse hires will get cut first. The council, on the other hand, asserted that Best can request "out-of-order" layoffs.
Durkan said that this would be "a time-consuming drawn-out process where the chief would have to justify every single one of the decisions to go out of process." According to a letter received Tuesday from the officer of Labor Relations (LR) to Best and Deputy Mayor Mike Fong, the city has already received bargaining requests from all the labor unions associated with SPD (there are four).
Instead, Durkan said, the "most diverse" officers would be laid off since new hires at SPD tend to be more diverse. "Is that worth the trade-off?" she asked. Best alleged that the council was asking for layoffs based "on race."
The council has proposed layoffs based on function (like getting rid of the Navigation Team that sweeps homeless encampments and reducing the SWAT team by two positions) and getting rid of officers with the most complaints lodged against them.
However, according to the LR letter, "Based on the fact that the chief must justify out-of-order layoffs, and that each individual officer can petition for their layoff to be reconsidered, the fact that bargaining will likely take months and could result in mediation or arbitration, and the potential of litigation, Labor Relations does not believe out-of-order layoffs can occur in 2020."
The letter insinuates that if the council gets the $1.6 million in budget savings from the projected layoffs there will be a direct correlation in laying off students and recruits.
The council will have to chew on that news in their meeting tomorrow. The budget committee will meet starting at 10 a.m. and for another session at 2 p.m.