By Paul Kiefer
Interim Seattle Police Chief Adrian Diaz appeared before the City Council’s Public Safety Committee on Tuesday to present his argument against the $5.4 million cut to the SPD budget proposed by the council in December 2020 in response to overspending by the department. Diaz argued that the additional proposed budget cut could plunge SPD into a staffing crisis “beyond mitigation.”
The proposed $5.4 million cut was the council’s response to the revelation in December that SPD had overspent its budget by that amount, requiring the council to make a last-minute addition to the department’s budget. Though SPD staff told council that the department needed that funding to cover separation costs, family leave pay, and COVID testing site-related overtime, the council pointed out that SPD spent past its approved overtime budget during last summer’s protests and left other costs unpaid until the end of the year. The resolution expressing the council’s intent to cut $5.4 million from SPD’s 2021 budget was largely an effort to dissuade SPD from similar overspending in the future.
A month earlier, the council had approved a larger slate of reductions to SPD’s 2021 budget—a $21.5 million cut proposed by the mayor, and a $12.7 million cut added by the council. Most of those cuts reduced SPD’s staffing budget, shifting the salaries reserved for vacant positions and the salaries of officers leaving the department to the city’s general fund.
Diaz argued that while his department can work within a constrained budget, the proposed $5.4 million cut would leave the department unable to adapt to its smaller workforce and could spur more officers to part ways with the department; since the beginning of 2020, SPD has seen more than 200 officers retire or transfer to other agencies—twice as many departures as in 2019. “The continued cuts to the budget, especially those not matched with efforts to reduce the duties of the department, will only drive further staffing losses,” Diaz said. “I can’t plan around a budget that’s constantly changing,” he added.
According to both Diaz and Deputy Mayor Mike Fong, who appeared alongside the interim chief during Tuesday’s presentation, rising attrition—and, Diaz added, a growing number of older officers who are taking medical leave to “burn time” before retirement—have already created serious holes in the department.
In September, Diaz attempted to fill vacancies in SPD’s patrol units by transferring 100 officers from specialized divisions in the department. “The cascading impacts” of the transfers within SPD, said Fong, “jeopardize [Seattle’s] compliance with the [federal] consent decree,” which requires the department to beef up community policing and training on use of force and bias-free policing. Both the community policing and training divisions have lost staff to internal transfers and attrition.
Unlike specialized units, SPD’s patrol units can call for backup from the 100-officer “community response group,” formed in October 2020 to lead the department’s protest response and provide backup to patrol officers citywide. According to Diaz, that unit is temporary; disbanding the community response group will enable the department to add officers back to specialized units.
Diaz and other SPD staffers told the council how the department would spend the $5.4 million if the council decided not to make the cut. In addition to the $1.1 to $1.8 million that will be needed to cover separation pay for departing officers, SPD’s chief data analyst, Chris Fisher, said that spending $2.2 million on improvements to the department’s online crime reporting software would help the department process police reports without the need for additional staff or in-person contact.
Diaz also said the money would enable SPD to fill 11 vacant civilian positions, including in the department’s community service officer program and public disclosure unit. Though Diaz assured the council that SPD would not use the additional dollars to cover overtime pay for officers, he also suggested that the department may use some of the funds to hire new recruits from the “record number of applicants” to SPD in the past year.
At the end of SPD’s presentation, committee chair Lisa Herbold emphasized her willingness “not to be rigid” in her support for an additional cut to SPD’s budget. She specifically pointed to the need to fill vacancies in the community service officer program and public disclosure unit as compelling reasons to reduce the size of the budget cut, and pointed to the additional need to hire civilian staff to address longstanding problems in SPD’s evidence storage unit.
The Public Safety Committee won’t consider amendments to the proposed budget action until their next meeting on March 23.