By Erica C. Barnett
This week, Change Washington—a lobbying group established by former Bellevue-area state senator Rodney Tom, along with several Republican donors and a former Zillow executive—sent out an email blast urging recipients to “help us spread the word” about the Seattle City Council’s “dangerous” plan “to weaken our police force without having a backup plan in place.” The call to action is featured on a new Change Washington website called “You Call, They Respond” that specifically targets the Seattle City Council.
Yesterday, the council voted 7-2 against a proposal by council member Kshama Sawant that would halt all police hiring and recruitment in the city. Opponents, including former civil rights attorney (and now council president) Lorena González, argued that a total hiring freeze would lead interim police chief Adrian Diaz to move more detectives in specialty units onto patrol, decimating the department’s ability to investigate domestic violence, elder abuse, and other crimes against vulnerable people. (Earlier this year, as PubliCola reported, Diaz moved 100 detectives onto active patrol duty, boosting the number of officers responding to 911 calls). The police department will shrink this year by about 20 percent, mostly due to officer attrition.
Nonetheless, the “You Call, They Respond” website claims repeatedly that the council is still considering cuts that would “decimate the department’s ability to respond timely and effectively when you need police.” In addition to soliciting donations for Change Washington, the 501(c)4 nonprofit’s call to action includes an email form pre-filled with one of about a half-dozen potential messages. Options include:
I am terrified. Even though the number of incidents and calls for service requiring a police response has more than doubled in the past decade, the total number of police officers will decline under Council’s planned budget. Please throw us a lifeline. Don’t make Seattle less safe. My neighborhood won’t survive.
I feel like you have lost sight of the fact the calls for service in Seattle already include your friends and neighbors who are experiencing either a very bad day or a horrific one. Shame on you. Please work to make Seattle safer. Abandon your plan to cut police by 50%.
Why are you flying blind on issues of policing? Look at the data. 94% of dispatched police responses in 2019 were either Priority 1 (lights and sirens, threat to life), Priority 2 (threat of escalation/harm if help does not arrive soon) or Priority 3 (requiring prompt assistance for a waiting victim). And you want to cut the police force by 50? You have lost touch with reality!
Several claims on the site are misleading or inaccurate. For example, the number of police responding to 911 calls has remained steady or increased over the past two years, even before the police chief moved 100 detectives onto patrol. Since the move, the number of 911 responders has been significantly higher than at any time in the previous year.
According to information compiled by city council central staff, SPD had 536 911 responders in January of 2019. That number was 544 in April, 538 in August, 537 in December, and 563 in April and August. In September, after the transfer, that number increased to 668. During that same period, between January 2019 and September 2020, the number of officers on patrol has increased from 674 to 694 (not “roughly 600,” as one of the calls to action claims).
The fact that most calls are Priority 1, 2, or 3 is not particularly revealing. Although the priority list goes all the way up to 9, the top three priorities account for 97 percent of the time officers spend responding to calls, according to SPD data. Priority 4, which accounts for 1 percent of officer response time, includes things like noise complaints and found property; Priority 5 calls, which make up the remaining 2 percent, include issues such as stolen license plates and injured animals.
It’s unclear who, if anyone, is on Change Washington’s payroll, how much money they’ve raised, or what kind of lobbying-related expenses they’ve accrued. Currently, the city does not require “grassroots lobbyists”—groups that spend money to influence legislation or policy by influencing and mobilizing members of the public—to register as lobbyists or report their funding sources and expenditures.
However, legislation the council will take up later this year could provide more transparency into who’s funding and working for the group. The legislation, which the council will take up December 8, would require grassroots lobbyists to reveal who is funding them, who they are attempting to influence, and what legislation they are seeking to pass, kill, or change. The bill would require detailed monthly reporting, similar to what is already required of people who lobby the city council or mayor directly. It would also expand the definition of “lobbying” to include direct attempts to influence non-elected city staffers.
Change Washington did not immediately respond to an email sent early Friday afternoon requesting information about their funding sources and the information included on the “You Call, They Respond” website. According to Change Washington’s website, “we think there’s room in the political center to find common ground for common sense, data driven governance that moves Seattle and the state forward.” That mission statement fits with the center-right goals of the mostly Republican “Majority Coalition Caucus” Tom formed in the state senate the early 2010s, but it’s pretty far out of step with the current Seattle City Council, which includes just one member, Alex Pedersen, who has consistently raised alarms about cutting SPD’s budget.