Anyone needing evidence that demands to “defund the police” by redirecting half their budget into community organizations have gained traction should watch yesterday’s City Council budget meeting (conducted via Zoom and available online), where council members began the process of what budget chair Teresa Mosqueda has called an “inquest” into the Seattle Police Department’s budget. The forensic look at a budget that council members called a “black box” comes at a time when the mayor and council were already looking for about $300 million in cuts, thanks to a recessionary revenue shortfall that has blown a hole in this year’s budget, and will almost certainly produce an austerity budget in 2021.
Wednesday’s meeting was mostly a deep dive into that budget, which totaled $409 million in 2020. Much of the information came from prior to the police actions against protesters over the last few weeks, which involved what will likely be massive overtime costs, since officers were working 12-hour shifts, as well as unknown costs for the huge number of tear gas canisters, “blast ball” grenades, rubber bullets, pepper spray, and other weapons deployed against protesters.
Still, the look into the police budget was illuminating. Some highlights:
• The overwhelming majority—75 percent—of the police budget pays for personnel, and most of those are sworn officers. Despite a hiring freeze in every other city department, SPD has hired a net total of 23 new officers this year (that is, the force grew by 23 after accounting for attrition). This hiring is currently on hold due to a lack of funding (and despite an upsurge in interest because of the recession), but council central staffer Greg Doss said it could pick up again in the fall—unless, of course, the city council reaches agreement to slow or stop police hiring before then.
• Sworn officers make dramatically more than their civilian counterparts at SPD, including those in positions the city council and Mayor Jenny Durkan have said are critical to police reform, such as community service officers. An average patrol officer, for example, earns a total compensation of around $150,780, not counting overtime. About 25 percent of that compensation consists of benefits, so a patrol officer’s annual salary is around $113,000. For a sergeant, that goes up to around $133,500.
In contrast, a parking enforcement officer with a total compensation of $96,850 actually takes home just over $50,000 a year, because benefits make up a full 48 percent of civilian SPD staffers’ salaries.
These six-figure salaries—which are significantly higher in practice for officers who, like the ones tear-gassing protesters on Capitol Hill last week, make extra money from working overtime—are worth considering in light of claims that it’s impossible to recruit officers from within Seattle city limits because they don’t make enough money to live here.
• More than a third of the budget for sworn officers goes to 911 response, a fact that Doss called “a statement of policy that the department is making.” Last year, Durkan announced the creation of a new emergency service called “Health One” to respond to non-emergency calls involving issues such as mental health and substance abuse. The program has never been expanded beyond downtown, however.
A common criticism of using armed officers to respond to 911 calls is that many of these calls are made because someone is in distress, not because there is a crime in progress. Many people call 911 in situations that demand trained mental health professionals or social workers, not armed officers with the authority to use deadly force against civilians.
• Overtime, mostly for sworn officers, costs the city about $30 million a year, although this year’s budget for policing protests could blow the lid off that number. In a typical year, about a third of that goes to providing security at events, including sports events. The city spends another $2.25 million a year on overtime for emphasis patrols in neighborhoods, an amount that has nearly doubled in the last year as Durkan has added more of these patrols. And security for the mayor herself costs another $393,000 a year.
• In a preview of upcoming presentations on what the police department’s overwhelming response to, and use of force against, protesters will cost the city, the police department provided a cost breakdown for every weapon and piece of protective equipment they use when responding to protests. Kevlar helmets? $531.02. Batons? $71.12 a pop. Those crazy-looking forearm plates that make cops tricked out in riot gear look like wannabe superheroes? A fairly affordable $22.99. “It seems that each officer goes out to each demonstration in about $900 in protective gear,” council member Tammy Morales observed.
The presentation, which you can read for yourself here, provides a baseline for the department budget and a framework for the council to start digging into how much SPD spent on the recent protests, from armored vehicles to overtime to weapons like tear gas, rubber bullets, and flash grenades. Next week, Mosqueda said, council will look at how other cities have moved toward community-based public safety models, followed by additional meetings on the 24th and July 1.