By Paul Kiefer
Six months after the Seattle City Council voted to move the city’s parking enforcement officers from the police department to a new Community Safety and Communications Center by June, Mayor Jenny Durkan and Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) Director Sam Zimbabwe hope the council will revisit their decision. On Tuesday, Durkan’s office transmitted legislation to the council that would move the roughly 100 parking enforcement officers to SDOT instead, arguing that SDOT is better equipped to manage parking enforcement.
But the proposal is an unwanted case of déjà vu for the Seattle Parking Enforcement Officers’ Guild (SPEOG), the union that represents the officers. When the council was considering opportunities to shift some positions and responsibilities away from the Seattle Police Department as part of the larger conversation about defunding SPD last fall, SPEOG leadership lobbied the council to move them into the Community Safety and Communications Center, arguing that the placement would signal the parking officers’ role in the city’s re-imagined approach to public safety.
SPEOG’s lobbying efforts worked on the council, which passed legislation in November creating the Community Safety and Communications Center to house both the city’s 911 call center and the parking enforcement unit. But they didn’t convince Durkan or SDOT, which maintained that SDOT would be a more appropriate home for parking enforcement and assembled a team of staff members to prepare for the “technical, operational and human resource” challenges involved in absorbing the parking enforcement unit into their own department.
In a letter to council members on Tuesday, Zimbabwe reiterated his arguments from last year, arguing that SDOT can offer its existing human resources staff, safety office, and budget staff to the parking enforcement unit, as well as the department’s “fleet management infrastructure,” including electric car charging stations that could serve parking enforcement vehicles. “No comparable resources will be as readily available to Parking Enforcement should they not come to SDOT,” he wrote.
But convenience is not the main reason Zimbabwe says he wants to move the parking enforcement unit to SDOT, he told PubliCola. “First and foremost, I think the most important thing is the alignment of our policymaking about curbside management and the enforcement of those policies,” he said—in other words, the people who create the policies should also be in charge of enforcing them. Housing the two functions in separate departments, he added, “leaves a lot more gray areas about who is supposed to be doing what.”
In his letter, Zimbabwe wrote that consolidating parking enforcement into SDOT is a matter of conforming with “national best practices,” citing nearly a dozen examples of cities that successfully shifted parking enforcement from police to their transportation departments.
Though conversations within SDOT about renewing the push to absorb parking enforcement began months ago, SPEOG president Nanette Toyoshima told PubliCola that her union was caught off-guard when they learned about Zimbabwe and Durkan’s intentions. “We didn’t know until maybe a week and a half ago,” she said. “It came as a shock, but maybe it shouldn’t have. We got an ordinance that said, ‘set up parking enforcement in the Community Safety Communication Center,’ and then we saw not one bit of work done towards moving that plan forward.”
Toyoshima believes that Zimbabwe’s emphasis on efficiency and best practices is misplaced. “If we’re all about following the [current] national best practice, that would be the status quo, right?” she asked. “Are we all about efficiencies within parking? Or are we about being a leader in alternatives to policing?” Toyoshima says the purpose of moving parking enforcement out of SPD is to signal the city’s commitment to civilianizing some duties currently assigned to SPD. Placing her unit in SDOT, she argued, would not send the same message. “When you think about SDOT, you’re not thinking about innovative, reimagined policing,” she said. “You’re thinking about the West Seattle Bridge, about bike lanes.”
But more important than the comparative optics of SDOT and the Community Safety and Communications Center, Toyoshima said, are SPEOG’s efforts to take on duties currently performed exclusively by sworn SPD officers, including responding to minor car crashes, car prowls and abandoned vehicles. “Those are jobs that should be done by someone who isn’t armed,” she said, “and besides—if SPD is regularly putting off low-priority calls because they’re short on officers, it would be good to have parking enforcement officers available instead.”
Transferring new roles to parking enforcement officers could offer advantages to the officers themselves: new duties bring new opportunities for overtime work, shoring up the incomes of parking enforcement officers who make less than their SPD counterparts. But Toyoshima added that parking enforcement officers have no interest in assuming the higher-risk responsibilities of SPD officers—particularly traffic stops and arrests.
In his letter to council, Zimbabwe wrote that he would be “willing to consider” expanding the duties of parking enforcement officers, and that SPEOG’s “desire for a greater role in safety and right of way management… align well with SDOT’s mission and existing operations.” However, he acknowledged that shifting responsibilities away from SPD officers would require the city to negotiate the changes with the Seattle Police Officers Guild—the union that represents most SPD officers—because a reduction in responsibilities for SPD officers could impact those officers’ overtime incomes.
The letter did not persuade Toyoshima that SDOT is committed to empowering parking enforcement officers to take on duties that are currently performed by police. “If we’re moved to SDOT,” she said, “I expect it will be business as usual—we won’t have any new duties. [Zimbabwe] made a vague promise to look into expanding our duties in the future, but there don’t appear to be any concrete plans.”
Councilmember Lisa Herbold, who led the initial push to move the parking enforcement unit to the Community Safety and Communications Center last fall, said she doesn’t feel any pressure to consider the legislation proposed by Durkan and Zimbabwe. “I think the council made a good decision in November. We made our decision by listening to the workers’ vision,” she said. “I don’t feel a lot of pressure to refute the arguments right now, because we already did that.”
The council has the power to determine where the parking enforcement unit lands, but if the mayor’s office is determined to see the parking enforcement unit move to SDOT, slowing the development of the Community Safety and Communications Center could be a way of pressuring the council to reconsider.