“You Can’t Fix What’s Fundamentally Broken”: City Council Discusses Defunding Police Department

Editor’s note: This post originally appeared at the South Seattle Emerald.

As the Seattle Police Department announced it was removing all “sensitive items” from the East Precinct building on Capitol Hill in anticipation of another long night of protests, the Seattle City Council adopted a number of strongly worded resolutions demanding action earlier this afternoon. Among other actions, the council unanimously signed two letters calling, respectively, for the demilitarization of SPD and for Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes to withdraw the city’s lawsuit against inquest reforms adopted by King County in 2019.

The first letter, which was initiated by state lawmakers, calls for reducing police funding and redirecting it to “community-based alternatives” that promote public safety. The second, initiated by council member Lisa Herbold, would effectively allow King County continue with inquests (formal, public investigations) into police shootings that have been held up by the city’s lawsuit. At a meeting of the Community Police Commission last week, Mayor Durkan said she was unaware of the lawsuit, which the city filed in February.

The council also plans to consider legislation that will formalize Police Chief Carmen Best’s directive to officers that they should not use “mourning bands” to cover their badge numbers, a reform both Best and Durkan initially and repeatedly said was unnecessary last week, given that officers are required to display their first initials and last names.

In addition to short-term measures to protect peaceful protesters, the council indicated they were ready to start real discussions about defunding the Seattle Police Department—a key demand from demonstrators who began protesting in late May after the death of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, at the hands of Minneapolis police.

More significant than any of these hastily proposed resolutions, however, were the statements council members made about defunding the police department and reallocating the funds to other purposes, including health care, child-care programs, and community organizations in Black and brown communities that have been overpoliced and underserved by the city.

Council members said they were appalled by the police violence that occurred at the East Precinct over the weekend, including last night after Best and Durkan held a press conference to announce that they would change their tactics to create a less heated situation. In spite of these promises, last night’s police action against protesters was widely described as the most violent yet, with hundreds of officers in body armor and gas masks and National Guard members deploying flash grenades, gas, pepper spray, and rubber bullets against protesters after a small number of demonstrators threw items at the line of police.

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“We’re now in a situation where, in Seattle, babies are being exposed to tear gas and children are being pepper sprayed in the face. … Children are bearing witness to their parents being pulled from their cars and arrested” for participating in protests, council budget chair Teresa Mosqueda said.

In addition to short-term measures to protect peaceful protesters, the council indicated they were ready to start real discussions about defunding the Seattle Police Department—a key demand from demonstrators who began protesting in late May after the death of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, at the hands of Minneapolis police.

“We have an opportunity now to shift and to pivot and to think about what we want our public safety to look like and define who it is we want this public safety model to truly, meaningfully serve,” council president Lorena González said. “I don’t think we’re talking about reform anymore. You can’t fix what is fundamentally broken.”

In practical terms, this will mean the initiation of council budget committee chair Teresa Mosqueda called an “inquest” into the “black box” of the police budget itself, including how much the city has spent deploying chemical and other weapons indiscriminately against mostly peaceful protesters in a residential neighborhood. “We are not going to pass [the budget] until we, the council have a chance to get a thorough , transparent, public deep dive into the Seattle Police Department’s funding,” Mosqueda said. “I am committed to defunding the police and using most of that money, 50 percent ideally, to invest back into the community.” Mosqueda said she hoped that review would wrap up by July 17.

Mosqueda also joined council member Kshama Sawant in calling for Durkan’s resignation, an idea that Durkan has derided as a “political ploy.” Durkan also suggested this weekend that council members who showed up at the East Precinct protests over the weekend were merely “postur[ing]” for political gain and needed to work to “deescalate, not escalate, the situation.”  Durkan also claimed that the FBI had informed the city about a “credible threat” against police buildings, but her office deferred all followup questions to the FBI, and council member Herbold said this morning that she had been unable to get specific details about these alleged threats.

Although Best has appeared at the protest at least two times, Durkan has not shown up at any protest since she briefly spoke to demonstrators outside city hall last week and was roundly booed.

It remains unclear whether the council’s actions—and there will certainly be more of them as the annual budget process continued—represent a potential shift of power between the executive and legislative branches. Historically, the council has tended to defer to the mayor on major policy and budgeting issues, trimming budgets around the margins and avoiding strong statements that directly condemn the executive. As a coequal branch of government and the body that amends and adopts the city’s budget, the council has significant power, but they have not always opted to use it. The use of force against people protesting specifically against police violence may convince them to do so.

Durkan has resisted calls to defund the police, instead saying that she continues to be committed to “reform.” Asked at last night’s press conference whether she would be open to discussions about dismantling of the police department, as the city council of Minneapolis has proposed, Durkan said that was not necessary in Seattle because the city has already undertaken a reform process as the result of the federal oversight established in 2012, when a federal judge found that the city had engaged in racially biased policing and excessive use of force. Last week, City Attorney Holmes withdrew the city’s request to terminate a sustainment plan for that decree, a step toward asking the judge to lift the decree altogether.

“In the coming weeks, we will have a conversation about … SPD’s budget,” and will rethink spending on new weapons, vehicles, and technology,” Durkan said yesterday. It is becoming increasingly clear, both inside and outside City Hall, that this “conversation” will not be enough.