Yesterday Seattle City Council members voted 6-3 against a bill to reduce funding for the Seattle Police Department. A mixed cohort of council members voted no.
On one side of the dais, Councilmember Alex Pedersen opposed the bill because he believed the council shouldn't be defunding the police at all. On the other side, Councilmembers Kshama Sawant, Teresa Mosqueda, and Tammy Morales rejected the bill because it didn't defund the budget enough. Council President Lorena Gonzalez straddled the two positions, voting against the bill because making changes to the SPD budget right now felt premature.
The bill in question, sponsored by Councilmember Lisa Herbold, simultaneously cut $3 million from SPD's budget while also unfreezing SPD spending by around $7.5 million. Around $2 million from budget cuts would fund the council's participatory budgeting process. This was the latest iteration of a bill that the council has debated for months.
The bill originated from a December council decision to grant SPD $5.4 million after the department said it exceeded its overtime spending budget and after the council pinky swore via a non-binding resolution last August not to increase police budgets. After breaking that promise, the council said it would take $5.4 million out of SPD's next budget in 2021 and put the entirety of those saved dollars into participatory budgeting, a new program to engage community members in the city budget process.
However, the council whittled down that $5.4 million number and earmarked more spending for SPD in areas such as technology, evidence storage, and public records after a federal judge and a federal court monitor said cutting SPD's budget would make it harder for the department to comply with the federal consent decree.
Herbold's final iteration of this bill—what she called a "tough compromise"—trimmed the amount the council would cut from SPD from $5.4 million to $3 million and allow SPD to use $7.5 million in funds that the council had previously restricted via proviso to fund other programs, trainings, and patrols. Participatory budgeting would only get $2 million. Council members in Herbold's Public Safety & Human Services committee voted on the bill with a "do not pass" recommendation. That decision held when the full council voted down the bill.
"This bill has become a farce," Sawant said. "It has been amended and amended until it now does almost the opposite of what it claimed to do."
Herbold stressed that "this bill was about accountability, not about a number."
"We are trying to foster a culture of accountability in the police department and a culture of fiscal oversight... with the council in the driver's seat," she said.
However, the activists who flooded public comment yesterday with testimonies about how SPD brutalized protesters last summer argued that granting more resources to SPD contravened efforts to hold the department accountable.
"I'm begging you not to give SPD any more money," a public commenter named Walker Thomas said. "It's unbelievable that we have to keep doing this after a year of constant police violence."
Sawant rebuked her colleagues for wavering on defunding the police, reminding them of nearly a year ago, when seven of the nine council members signaled they'd defund SPD by 50%. Councilmember Debora Juarez, one of the two members who didn't say she'd defund SPD, rebuked Sawant, saying that "sometimes it's not realistic to decide you're going to wipe out a whole police department." Juarez voted for the bill.
Andrew Lewis also voted for the bill. Before he voted yes, Lewis proposed an amendment to send the $2 million gleaned from the SPD budget to the JustCares hoteling program for the homeless instead of sending it to the participatory budgeting program because he worried that "the inevitable inertia of things" would stall momentum—aka funding—for the successful shelter strategy. While his amendment passed, the base bill didn't, so nothing will come of Lewis's amendment.
Morales said her "no vote" came back to the original intent of the bill—"to hold the department accountable for its overspending," she said during the council meeting. SPD "could absorb the reduction through salary savings," she said, citing the way SPD's higher-than-anticipated officer attrition resulted in around $13 million saved on salaries.
"If [SPD] finds they have additional needs they can always come back to the council for additional funds, and that's how we hold the department accountable," Morales said.
Morales continued: "SPD created its own funding crisis when it decided to overspend on overtime last summer and giving the department more funding won't prevent crime, reduce homelessness or substance abuse, it won't improve mental health outcomes for our community members. Only investing in community services will do that."
Before the final vote, Herbold warned that "barreling ahead" on budget cuts unsupported by the monitor and U.S. District Judge James Robart, the judge overseeing the consent decree, would yield no results.
She likened it to how the council passed a ban on less-lethal weapons last summer that Robart blocked. The city still doesn't have a less-lethal weapons ban. "We have nothing," Herbold said. "The same thing will happen again with this. If this bill doesn't pass there will be no budget cut at all."
It's unclear where the council goes from here. Likely, the council will wait to have further discussions on SPD's budget until they start discussing next year's budget later this summer after Mayor Jenny Durkan makes her budget recommendations.
Meanwhile, in yesterday's meeting the council also greenlit the participatory budgeting program, which is funded with $28 million. The bill the council passed yesterday allows the program to access around $18 million of the funds to start the program, which won't be stood up until 2022 at the earliest.