By Paul Kiefer
During a public safety budget hearing last Thursday, Seattle City Council public safety committee chair Lisa Herbold suggested a wider role for an agency that’s received relatively little attention during the recent debates about reducing the size and role of the Seattle Police Department: SPD’s Parking Enforcement Unit.
The idea of expanding the role of parking officers to include duties currently performed by armed police comes as the city council deliberates on Mayor Jenny Durkan’s proposed 2021 budget, which includes only minor cuts to SPD’s budget. At a public hearing Tuesday night, dozens of residents asked the council to amend Durkan’s proposal to defund SPD by at least 50 percent, in line with what protesters and advocates have been demanding for months.
After raising the issue of overtime spending for SPD staffing at special events, Herbold said she was “grateful to [parking enforcement officers] for signaling their willingness to take on that work.” She pointed to a letter written by the Seattle Parking Enforcement Officers’ Guild to council members expressing interest in expanding their duties to include not only a greater role at special events, but also an array of other roles currently filled by more highly paid sworn SPD officers. As Herbold noted, SPEOG also said that they would prefer to move into the proposed new Department of Public Safety, rather than the Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT), as Durkan has proposed.
The concept of the Department of Public Safety originates in a resolution the council passed in August recommending the creation of a “civilian-led Department of Community Safety & Violence Prevention to remove certain functions from the Seattle Police Department.” However, the absence of any concrete foundations for the department has become a sticking point in the ongoing budget discussions. The budget Durkan transmitted last week limited budget cuts to SPD on the grounds that the city has not yet developed alternatives to police, while the council contended that developing those alternatives will require shifting money from SPD’s budget.
In the letter to council, the parking officers offered to take over array of “services that were formerly provided by sworn SPD officers” ranging from managing red light violations to responding to car prowls, minor accidents, illegally parked RVs and abandoned vehicles. Currently, those types of incidents make up roughly 20 percent of the calls for service to which SPD responds; traffic incidents alone account for nearly 15 percent of all calls. While parking enforcement officers can’t replace SPD at to every traffic- or car-related incident, the guild argues that they can take on a sizable portion of SPD’s workload, which would in turn significantly reduce interactions between civilians and armed police officers.
Union president Nanette Toyoshima, who wrote the letter to council, said Durkan’s proposal to move parking enforcement into SDOT caught her unit off-guard. “We only learned of this potential move through Twitter and a press conference,” Toyoshima said, referring to Mayor Durkan’s July 13 announcement that she intends to move a variety of civilian units out of SPD, including parking enforcement and the 911 call center. “It was a bit of a rude awakening after over 50 years with SPD.”
She said the guild had no complaints about being housed in SPD, but that they were also responsive to the public push to civilianize some roles held by police. “No matter where we’re moved—to a new [public safety] department, to SDOT, or if we stay in SPD —we’re interested in being part of the solution,” she said.
Toyoshima said the parking enforcement unit is ready to take on new responsibilities quickly. As she pointed out in the letter to council, parking enforcement officers have already been trained in de-escalation techniques, CPR and first aid, and much of the technology needed to take on additional responsibilities. Moreover, Toyoshima said the parking enforcement unit “looks like the community we serve”—it’s about 60 percent BIPOC, more than twice as high as the share of BIPOC sworn officers in SPD.
The parking unit already responds to some SPD radio calls and provides traffic control at special events, albeit not at lighted intersections—the Seattle Municipal Code currently requires sworn officers to fill that role.
Any transfer of duties from SPD to the parking patrol unit would be subject to collective bargaining between the city, the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild (SPOG) and SPEOG. Officers represented by SPOG make significant overtime earnings from the work the parking officers have proposed taking over. Because sworn officers make more than parking enforcement officers, the move would save money for the city, but result in lower overall earnings for sworn police.
Toyoshima said SPEOG won’t start negotiating with the city about the future of their unit until after the end of the budget process, which wraps up in November. Asked whether taking on duties that would otherwise be a source of income for SPOG members might create tension between the two unions, Toyoshima SAID, “we don’t say, ‘gimme gimme gimme.’ As a union, we have a great deal of respect for collective bargaining.” It’s unclear whether SPOG, which did not return calls for comment, would be amenable to ceding some responsibilities to the parking enforcement unit. “If they push back against anyone,” she said, “it should be the city, not us.”
As for SPEOG’s request to be transferred to a new Department of Public Safety, Durkan spokesperson Kelsey Nyland said the mayor’s office believes SDOT is the most appropriate department to house parking enforcement. “The department already manages and maintains the City’s rights of way,” Nyland said, “so it makes sense to house the enforcement agency within the same department.” When asked for comment, SDOT spokesperson Dawn Schellenberg directed PubliCola back to the mayor’s office.
For now, SPEOG represents the only group of civilian employees transferring out of SPD who have voiced their interest in taking a larger role in the city’s new approach to public safety. Plans are also underway to move the 911 call center, the Office of Emergency Management, and the city’s domestic violence victim support advocates out of SPD.
However, shifting existing civilian units around city government is only a small part of the larger project of developing public safety infrastructure outside SPD. The work of building that infrastructure has already begun in the nonprofit sector, often with city support—like Community Passageways’ Critical Incident Response Team, profiled by PubliCola last month—and will continue parallel to the city’s ongoing budget deliberations.