1. The City Council voted on Monday to shore up several of its own priorities for rethinking public safety using $15 million in savings from salaries left unspent by the Seattle Police Department after another year of abnormally high attrition.
The council left almost two-thirds of the $15 million in the department’s budget, allowing SPD to cover the costs of downsizing—updates to timekeeping software to help deploy a smaller number of officers more efficiently, for example. Additionally, the council lifted a trio of provisos on the department’s budget, releasing roughly $8 million for the department to use as it wants.
Of the $5.2 million the council shifted out of SPD’s budget, $3 million will go to the Human Services Department to fund grants to nonprofits specializing in alternatives to policing. The council set aside another $700,000 to stand up a new civilian crisis response unit tentatively called Triage One.
SPD’s staffing crisis loomed over Monday’s budget vote, as highlighted by a pair of unsuccessful amendments introduced by Councilmember Alex Pedersen that laid out two options for scaling up the department’s recruitment and retention efforts. The more ambitious of the two would have set aside nearly $2.8 million for SPD to develop a loosely defined “retention program,” as well as $233,000 to offer hiring incentives to officers who join SPD—as much as $15,000 for officers who transfer from other agencies. To cover the cost, Pedersen proposed completely abandoning the plan to shift a portion of SPD’s salary savings to HSD; in a blog post on Friday, Pedersen wrote that “funding for those other programs can be extended at a later date, but we have a SPD staffing crisis today.”
A second, scaled-down proposal would have set aside nearly $900,000 for retention while leaving the amount earmarked for hiring incentives unchanged; the latter plan would have left the HSD dollars untouched, instead drawing from still-unassigned dollars in SPD’s budget to pay for overtime.
Ahead of Monday’s meeting, both Mayor Jenny Durkan and Interim SPD Chief Adrian Diaz urged the council to support one of Pedersen’s amendments, casting the proposals as a vital intervention for a department in a downward spiral. “As a City, we need to address the real hiring and retention challenges at the Seattle Police Department,” Durkan wrote. “It’s a false choice to invest in alternatives or hire and retain officers to meet our current 911 response.”
But neither option found enough traction to move ahead on Monday. Council budget chair Teresa Mosqueda argued that scaling up civilian crisis response units should take priority over the police department’s retention and recruitment woes, while Councilmember Lisa Herbold noted that SPD is not the only city department grappling with a staffing shortage. “If we’re going to focus on recruitment, I think we need to think about vacancies across all departments,” Herbold said.
“Having a fair, accountable, cost-effective contract is the most sustainable path to save money for alternatives and to hire some officers to replace those who left.”— City Councilmember Alex Pederesen
Councilmember Andrew Lewis voted for Pedersen’s less-ambitious amendment, which failed on a 5-4 vote, citing the short-term need to stem SPD’s losses while civilian emergency responders build their capacity. “Right now, the only service that is to scale and that can provide exigent first response is our police department,” he said.
In an email to PubliCola Monday, Pedersen said his amendments were intended as emergency measures, not repudiations of the council’s plans to downsize the role of SPD. “It’s all about timing the investments based on the immediate needs,” he said. “We have already set aside tens of millions for additional upstream human services investments, which I also support.”
Pedersen added that the upcoming contract negotiations with the Seattle Police Officers Guild (SPOG) could help reduce SPD’s staffing costs by reining in expenses written into the most recent contract, which expired at the end of 2020. “Having a fair, accountable, cost-effective contract is the most sustainable path to save money for alternatives and to hire some officers to replace those who left,” he said.
2. Upcoming changes to the Department of Justice’s rules for court-appointed consent decree monitors are unlikely to impact Seattle’s own agreement with the police department, according to Emily Langlie, a spokesperson for the US Attorney for the Western District of Washington, because they only apply to new consent decrees.
Since 2012, the Seattle Police Department has operated under a consent degree—an agreement that the department will adopt reforms to address its history of racially biased policing and use of excessive force—administered by the Department of Justice and overseen by a monitor appointed by US District Court Judge James Robart. The proposed changes are an attempt to reform the monitoring system to avoid the appearance of conflicts of interest or financial improprieties.
US Attorney General Merrick Garland announced the planned changes—the result of a review of monitorships by associate attorney general Vanita Gupta—at the annual meeting of the International Association of Police Chiefs on Monday. The new rules are supposed to reduce the financial burden of consent decrees on the cities subject to the agreements.
The changes would impose new term limits on monitors, cap monitors’ fees, and—to quell concerns that monitoring could become a lucrative cottage industry—require that monitors only take on cases in one jurisdiction at a time.
Although the changes won’t extend to Seattle’s monitoring team, the city is no stranger to questions of financial impropriety by monitors. Merrick Bobb, who served as the monitor for Seattle’s consent decree between 2012 and September of last year, faced criticism for his team’s $880,000 annual budget—particularly after city officials noticed questionable charges on Bobb’s invoices, including alcohol and a corkscrew. His successor, Dr. Antonio Oftelie, charges significantly less for his services: his monthly invoices between September 2020 and January 2021 ranged from $18,000 to $43,000.