On Wednesday morning, just before the council discussed options for cutting the Seattle Police Department budget by as much as 50 percent, senior deputy mayor Mike Fong sent a letter to council members urging them against such “blunt efforts.” Instead, Fong said, the council should approach the process of “re-envisioning policing” in a more “thoughtful” way, with a process of “structural reform” that would stretch well into 2021 and beyond.
“SPD has already spent half of its $400 million annual budget by now, so a $200 million cut (or 50% of SPD’s budget) would leave the department with zero budget remaining for 2020 and require the City to abolish the department,” Fong wrote.
A “$100 million reduction (or 25% of SPD’s budget),” he continued, “would mean immediate layoffs of up to 1,000 personnel leaving [police] Chief [Carmen] Best and the Seattle Police Department unable to conduct basic functions. In addition, it would be irresponsible to make immediate cuts without any conceivable mechanism to stand up alternative models to achieve community safety. … [T]he Executive does not think that simply making target cuts in SPD’s budget, without looking at the work or personnel being done/cut or the ability to have others do the work, will advance community safety.”
Durkan has consistently responded to demands that the city defund SPD by promising to “reimagine” the role of the police and brushed off protesters’ three high-level demands—immediately defund SPD by at least 50 percent, reinvest that money in community-based approaches to safety, and release all jailed protesters—as naive or unrealistic. Fong’s email, for example, says the cuts advocates are proposing are “not informed by any analysis or considerations of the underlying functions and services that SPD currently delivers.”
Instead of immediate cuts, Durkan has proposed a multi-step process before making any kind of structural changes to the department, including community “engagement and further [interdepartmental] analysis [that] will lead to additional recommendations for SPD reforms and alternative models for service delivery,” as Fong’s letter puts it.
This commitment to further “reform” and a process of community engagement led by the city is unlikely to satisfy advocates and abolitionists pushing for immediate cuts and systemic changes. Nor is it likely to satisfy the council, which was talking on Wednesday about phasing in cuts of perhaps $85 million—”the back of the envelope figure,” according to council budget committee chair Teresa Mosqueda—to be coupled with investments in community-based programs, including a new 911 system that would replace police with community responders on non-criminal calls.
By arguing for a slower approach and emphasizing reform and “re-envisioning” (as Fong’s letter puts it), the mayor’s office is committed to an incrementalism that many on the council—which amends and approves the mayor’s budget—have already rejected. Durkan’s proposal to cut $20 million from the police budget this year, as I’ve reported, only represents an additional cut of $4 million over what she proposed to the council before protests against police violence broke out in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in May. As SPD has acknowledged, the department has already met all its hiring goals for 2020, so Durkan’s proposed cuts won’t impact the number of police on the streets.
Like most police departments, SPD is a unionized institution of highly paid workers who are generally resistant to cuts or policy changes. Even getting officers to move so-called “mourning bands,” black tape strips used to signify the death of a colleague (in this case, a member of the State Patrol who died in March), to a place where they do not obscure badge numbers has apparently been a major challenge, despite legislation requiring them to do so.
In his letter, Fong suggests that union rules that protect officers with seniority would lead to the department cutting “some of our younger and most diverse officers” first, “defeating the hard work done to recruit officers that reflect and serve their communities.” Advocates coming forward with proposals for systemic change are unlikely to be moved by such arguments, especially when they imply that community organizations have not thought their own priorities and proposals through.