Sara Nelson was technically also there when this discussion happened.
Sara Nelson was technically also there when this discussion happened. Courtesy of the campaigns

On Wednesday Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat argued that the movement to defund the police "has lost its steam." But the defund movement hasn't gone anywhere, it just is—and always has been—more nuanced than Westneat understands.

During the summer protests last year, activists called on the Seattle City Council to defund the Seattle Police Department's $409 million budget by 50% and then to reinvest that money in Black communities. Others called for total and immediate abolition. Still others called for abolition, but with the understanding that abolition takes time to achieve.

In the November budget, the council ended up trimming 18% of SPD's budget mostly by moving basic functions out of the department. Activists considered this a win, however partial.

Since then, federal oversight stalled further police reform actions from the council, such as the attempt to cut SPD's 2021 budget by $2.83 million to make up for the department's 2020 overtime spending. Judge James Robart expressed concern that further cutting the SPD budget would violate the consent decree, the federal oversight agreement between SPD and the U.S. Department of Justice. In order to defund and reimagine policing, something would have to give with that agreement.

Though Robart's warnings are stalling some reforms, the conversation around defunding the police and reimagining public safety continues apace. One of those conversations happened during a Stranger Election Control Board meeting with the candidates for Seattle City Council Position 9.

Participants included Nikkita Oliver, an attorney and activist; Brianna Thomas, Council President Lorena González's chief of staff; and Sara Nelson, the co-owner of Fremont Brewing.

We posed this question to candidates: What is a realistic timeline for your police abolition and/or reform plans? Here's how the discussion went.

What's the plan?

Thomas said her plan for police reform would take "four to five years" to implement, a figure she based off of her experience setting up the Office of the Inspector General in 2018.

"The rule of thumb is that it takes four years to make a good Division 1 basketball team," Thomas said. "It’s going to take a little bit longer than that to make sure we’ve got a new public safety structure that’s in place, that has the sustainable funding for community-based alternatives, which I do believe—I do not believe everything has to be a gun and badge response."

Thomas said she believed Seattle needed "significantly more mental health and trauma-informed responses to people in crisis or on the street." However, she didn't want the council to set up those "community-based projects with one-time, pilot-project style funding, and then go back to that organization two years later" and then demand to know why that program didn't fix everything.

Thomas continued: "No one’s going to flip a switch on a 400-year-old system in a year. It is going to take capacity-building, which is going to require progressive revenue, it’s going to require a sustainable way to continue to grow that system while we replace what used to be business as usual."

One sticking point for her, however, is how the city of Seattle will find insurance to cover non-police workers responding to crises.

Nelson wants to give police departments more money for training and for higher salaries, and she said that plan would take two to three years to roll out.

Oliver thinks dumping more money into the same system will yield the same unacceptable results, and so they want to abolish policing and the "entire criminal justice system." Abolishing, Oliver stressed, means "both dismantle and build."

Oliver commended the city council's 18% cut to SPD's 2020 budget, but said "not a huge amount of it is actually an investment into building new structures in community."

Currently, community organizations are vying for a little over $10 million allocated by the council for community safety programs. Those funds only last 18 months. "That’s not going to keep community organizations doing the work that responds to the need of the crises," Oliver said.

Oliver then launched into their vision for public safety.

"Over the next few years," Oliver said, "We need to continue to decrease the Seattle Police Department by 10 to 20%, continue to grow our in-community structures for responding to mental health crises, domestic violence, having access to safe houses and affordable housing, providing people with rental and food support."

Based on 911 data from SPD, only 1.3% of 911 calls concerned violent crime. The other 98.7% of calls are for mental health crises, domestic disputes, parking violations, etc. In light of that data, Oliver wants to see Seattle respond to nonviolent crimes with "prevention and intervention strategies" rather than with violence.

For Oliver, defunding the entire criminal legal system offers the best path toward that goal. Oliver wants to take "significant amounts of money" from policing, courts, jails, and prosecution "over the next four to five years" and then put it "into other apparatuses such as the human services department and communities." That reallocation of dollars is necessary for reimagining public safety because "we have to build the infrastructure to respond to basic needs, respond to mental health crises, and to do the work of preventing and intervening."

But in order for the city council to move those funds around, the council will need to negotiate a new Seattle Police Officer Guild contract. "As it stands now," Oliver said, "[SPD] uses the CBA to get in the way of being able to take dollars from their budget."

Oliver also wants to exit the consent decree, which throws up another powerful veto point for any council action on policing.

Digging deeper on the challenges of defunding the police

After Oliver laid out their plan, Thomas jumped in to say that she "fully agreed factually" with them on the challenges the consent decree and the collective bargaining agreement present for change, but she also noted all the competing and shifting demands she's heard from different stakeholders on those issues over the last few years.

In 2018, when Thomas was working for the council, labor representatives pressured city council members to support the notoriously bad Seattle Police Officers Guild contract. González and former Council President and current mayoral candidate Bruce Harrell voted in favor of that contract despite loud opposition from the Community Police Commission and other groups.

But then last year, Thomas said, the Martin Luther King Jr. Labor Council "turned a new leaf," "found representation mattered," and ousted SPOG.

Meanwhile, community demands regarding the consent decree have shifted back and forth. In 2019, Judge Robart ruled SPD out of compliance with the agreement after the city bargained away accountability measures in the SPOG contract. A few weeks before last summer's protests, City Attorney Pete Holmes filed a motion asking Robart to release the department from some of that oversight. In the immediate aftermath of George Floyd's murder, Seattleites called on the city to withdraw that request. Holmes obliged.

Now, as the city runs into barriers to defund the police, the consent decree has lost its luster among activists as an accountability tool.

Thomas articulated this frustration from the city's point of view.

"I think that’s one of the challenges with governance," she said. "City Attorney Pete Holmes heard the community loud and clear and withdrew the petition, but now that consent decree being a barrier to moving forward to defund the police is also being used to hold electeds accountable for not moving fast enough. So, I guess I just wonder how do we balance the ever-moving target that is the community’s will in an authentic way that gets us to the solutions that people do want but not give everyone whiplash?"

Oliver answered this question by explaining that part of the problem is the communication breakdown at all levels of this process, which starts with Judge Robart and continues with the Community Police Commission (CPC), the SPD civilian oversight board:

I do think that Judge Robart is very hard in terms of the way he makes decisions around the consent decree that’s very challenging for community to understand. You’ll go to a hearing and he will lambast SPD and tell the Community Police Commission they’re doing a great job. You’ll go back the next time and it’s the CPC that’s messed up and Seattle Police Department is doing great.

So I think when Seattle was trying to get out from under the consent decree it was at a time when SPD was actually being told by Judge Robart 'Y’all are not actually doing what you’re supposed to' and—I speak for community—that scared a lot of people that these bumper guards that had been guiding accountability—especially when the council voted for the collective bargaining agreement that in some ways delegitimized accountability legislation from 2017. I think there were community members, including myself, who at first were like, 'I don’t know how I feel about this because there won’t be anything forcing SPD to have to keep dealing with itself.'

Judge Robart does what Judge Robart does and swings to the other direction, and now the consent decree is being used to allow the Seattle Police Department to continue to do things that are violating the rights of residents.

One thing that didn’t happen from the City Attorney’s office was a stronger stipulation as to why the city wanted to get out from under the consent decree, so community broadly didn’t understand that there was an attempt to have more latitude and actually control the way that SPD functions. I think part of this is a communication and education issue, and some of that I actually put back on the CPC who lost their entire community relations crew over the period of the protest, so nobody’s doing work with community to get them to understand—to get us to understand—what’s happening. I think there’s a real gap between groups like the CPC being able to effectively communicate with community and then having a strong understanding of the various legal factors that come into play as to why we weren’t able to get to the full 50%, or why the consent decree is problematic and that’s a community education issue.

Nelson, who had been sitting mostly quietly during all of this, jumped in. "You said the word community," Nelson said, "but there are community members with different opinions within community about defund itself."

Thomas responded: "To Nikkita’s point earlier, that is the role of the CPC, and I think so far where the CPC is not in the graces of Judge Robart on any given day is because they’re over-indexing on a specific group, which is normally BIPOC communities, which makes intuitive sense since those are the communities most harmed."

Thomas explained to Nelson that the CPC could be doing a better job of indexing with whiter communities, but they've really been focused on the people most impacted by policing.

Nelson said she was referring to Black people who were against defunding and cited this op-ed by DeVitta Briscoe, the director of Not This Time.

"I don’t think the Black community is a monolith," Oliver said. "I think this is the struggle of governing because doing the right thing does not always mean the most popular thing."