Durkan’s Proposed $20 Million Cut to Police Is Just $4 Million More Than Initially Planned

The overall budget picture, via City Budget Office.

After weeks of soaring, budget-speech-style rhetoric about “reimagining the police” and “working with community,” Mayor Jenny Durkan’s proposed midyear police budget cut of $20 million, or just 5 percent of the department’s $400 million budget, was underwhelming. Moreover, according to sources familiar with Durkan’s initial budget balancing package, the proposed cut is only one percentage point (or $4 million) higher than the one Mayor Durkan proposed internally three weeks ago, before protests against police violence upended the city’s business-as-usual approach to public safety. That $4 million can be accounted for by Durkan’s proposal to delay the construction of a second North Precinct for the department.

Despite demands from activists against police violence to start cutting SPD right away, the 5 percent cut will not even reduce the size of the police force. As a presentation on the budget cuts makes clear, SPD is on track to hire and train enough new officers to make up for the expected rate of attrition through the end of the year. The presentation emphasizes that SPD is taking the biggest budget hit, in dollars, of any department; it does not point out the fact that this is because SPD is by far the largest department in the city.

SPD spent an extra $6.3 million this year policing protests over a period of 12 days, including the ones that led to the Capitol Hill Organized Protest zone near the East Precinct. That $6.3 million paid for 72,619 hours of overtime.

None of the changes proposed for SPD’s budget in 2020 represent a realignment of priorities; rather, they nibble around the edges by cutting things like new IT investments and cars.

SPD’s midyear budget adjustment also does not include any changes to the Navigation Team, the group of police officers and Human Services Department employees who do outreach and remove encampments around the city. Currently, the SPD budget includes $2.4 million for the Navigation Team, which pays for one lieutenant, two sergeants, and nine officers. School resource officers—police who provide security at schools, a role that is also extremely controversial—have been repurposed to go out with the Navigation Team while schools are closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

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The mayor’s budget announcement included a commitment from SPD to come up with proposals to cut its own budget by 30, 40, and 50 percent for 2021, and a commitment from the city to “engage community to provide substantive input on what 2021 SPD budget choices should be made.”

It’s standard for the city to ask departments to come up with potential cuts themselves, but the case of SPD is different because protesters are clamoring for its budget to be cut in half (to begin with) and for the entire concept of public safety to be reimagined in a way that does not center police. The Human Services Department, for example, came up with 2020 cuts that include not filling vacancies and reducing or eliminating travel and trainings—but, unlike the ongoing outcry over police funding, no one is clamoring for fewer human or social services, so the process of asking HSD to propose its own cuts is less politically fraught.

The police department spent an extra $6.3 million this year policing protests over a period of 12 days, including the ones that led to the Capitol Hill Organized Protest zone near the East Precinct. That $6.3 million paid for 72,619 hours of overtime.

The mayor’s proposed 2020 budget balancing package would also draw on funds from several voter-approved levies to pay for normal city operations. For example, $10 million will be shifted this year from the Move Seattle Levy, which was supposed to fund new transportation capital projects, toward the day-to-day operations of the Seattle Department of Transportation. The library levy, which was supposed to fund increased services, will now pay for basic operations—keeping the lights on at branches that might otherwise see reduced hours or closures.

The council will be discussing the mayor’s proposed budget cuts this afternoon. Most members of the council support passing a progressive tax to reduce the impact of next year’s budget shortfall. A payroll tax on large employers with high-paid workers, proposed by council budget committee chair Teresa Mosqueda, has five co-sponsors (a majority), but council member Kshama Sawant has threatened to put her own competing employee hours tax on a citywide ballot if Mosqueda’s proposal goes through in its current form. Durkan has not endorsed Mosqueda’s package and has never supported any tax proposal at the city level.

Budget director Ben Noble said yesterday that the budget cuts the city expects to make in 2021 (again, in the absence of any progressive revenue package) will amount to about 10 percent of the city’s overall budget—an “unprecedented” amount that even dwarfs the cuts the city made under former mayor Mike McGinn during the Great Recession.