By Paul Kiefer
Only half an hour before the Seattle City Council’s budget committee convened on Thursday morning, Mayor Jenny Durkan released a new executive order outlining yet another structured analysis of the Seattle Police Department’s functions and opportunities to civilianize some of the department’s roles.
The order announces the creation of two new bodies: a community safety work group intended to “integrate community input into policy changes” and “operationalize community priorities to reshape community safety and policing” and an interdepartmental team responsible for assessing “operational and functional aspects of SPD.” Both bodies will be made up of city employees from a handful of agencies, including SPD itself.
To many of the city council members receiving word of the mayor’s executive order, the scope of the new teams seemed redundant.
Deputy Mayor Shefali Ranganathan, presenting before the council on Thursday afternoon, acknowledged the overlap between the new research bodies and the two other recently-announced research teams tasked with shaping the city’s spending in 2021: the mayor’s own Equitable Communities Taskforce, a group of mayoral appointees who will guide the investment of $100 million into the city’s BIPOC communities; and the Black Brilliance Project, the community research program spearheaded by King County Equity Now (KCEN) intended to lay the groundwork for a public safety-oriented participatory budgeting process next year.
Exactly how the projects’ timelines will align, and how much weight each project will carry in the 2021 budget cycle, remains unclear.
Mayoral staffers attended yesterday’s council meeting to present Durkan’s proposed SPD budget for next year, which does not significantly reduce the number of SPD officers, as community groups have demanded. The budget calls for a trivial reduction of about 20 positions, for a police force of about 1,400 armed officers. Interim police chief Adrian Diaz told the council that this number, at a minimum, was necessary “to do the work that I need to do. … We do not have enough officers on the street.”
Council president Lorena González responded that “having this conversation… start from a place of, there are no circumstances under which any of us should assume that less than 1,400 badge and gun jobs are needed at SPD is a disservice. This fundamental divide between SPD’s position and that of police-accountability advocates (and council members) will continue to play out in all the various task forces and work groups in the coming months.
The research project outlined in the new executive order resembles the council’s earlier research into SPD functions that informed the revised budget package they passed over the summer. During Thursday’s meeting, Council member Lisa Herbold explained that the council had come to the conclusion that some SPD functions could be civilianized either immediately or within the near future after reviewing the 911 calls to which SPD officers were dispatched in the last year; she said the council found that more than half of those calls were for non-criminal incidents.
According to Senior Deputy Mayor Mike Fong, the research conducted by the new interdepartmental team would likewise include a review 911 calls directed to SPD, though it would also include a broader study of officer caseloads, overtime work, and ancillary functions of SPD. The timeline included in the executive order predicts that the team will produce their final report on SPD functions that can be transferred, eliminated, reduced, civilianized or expanded by March of next year.
Herbold, however, expressed concern that the project’s timeline would delay urgently needed changes to SPD longer than necessary, especially given that the project would retrace the council’s research from the summer. “I’m not going to say [the council’s analysis] was the most robust,” she said, “but it was thorough enough to let us know what our next set of questions should be.”
Council members also expressed concerns about the executive order’s vague reference to “community input.” According to the executive order, the community safety work group—which will include staff from the Department of Neighborhoods, the Human Services Department, the Office of Civil Rights, and SPD—will synthesize community input into “policy changes,” but the order does not name a source for that community input.
González pushed Fong and Julie Kline, the mayor’s public safety advisor, for greater detail about how the work group would collect public input and expressed concern that this new input process might be redundant with KCEN’s efforts. “I want to encourage us to make sure that we aren’t duplicating community engagement efforts,” she said, adding, “we hear a lot from stakeholders that they get community engagement exhaustion from being engaged repeatedly on the same issues.”
Given the different timelines of the three projects, several council members expressed frustration that the newly announced work group will produce its recommendations for “reimagining” SPD before KCEN’s research team can share their findings about the public safety priorities and suggestions of BIPOC communities. When budget committee chair Teresa Mosqueda asked why the mayor’s office did not direct the new work group to wait for the results of the community research process, Ranganathan said the community research would “inform” the priorities of the work group, but did not offer any concrete details about how the work group would coordinate with the community research team.
In a statement after the briefing, the Decriminalize Seattle coalition denounced Durkan’s executive order as an “inexcusable obstruction tactic” that wastes time and city dollars on redundant research. Additionally, Decriminalize Seattle criticized the executive order for placing “the very individuals who have been responsible for creating and sustaining the current policing system”—in other words, city employees appointed by the mayor— in charge of coming up with proposals to reshape the department. The press release also called upon Durkan to redirect her administration’s attention and resources to the Black Brilliance Project, which the coalition cast as the most direct avenue for the city’s BIPOC communities to elevate their budget priorities.
Despite the concerns of council members and activist groups about the project’s redundancy, the new interdepartmental team is expected to release a workplan this month and begin its analysis of SPD by November. The mayor’s office has not yet release details about the new community safety work group’s community engagement strategy.