Tag: Lisa Herbold

Proposal Would Grant Full Subpoena Power to Seattle Police Accountability Bodies

By Paul Kiefer

On Thursday morning, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan and city council member Lisa Herbold announced a new proposal to explicitly grant subpoena power to the Office of Police Accountability (OPA) and the Office of the Inspector General (OIG). Subpoena power would allow the two police accountability bodies to compel testimony from people who were involved in, or who witnessed, police misconduct but refused to testify. It would also allow the two offices to compel witnesses to hand over records and other evidence in police misconduct cases. If witnesses refused to testify or provide evidence, the proposed law would allow the OPA and OIG to turn to the City Attorney’s Office to obtain a court order enforcing the subpoena.

If passed, the legislation would fulfill a three-year-old promise to expand the powers of the OPA and OIG. The city’s 2017 police accountability ordinance explicitly granted the OIG and the OPA the authority to issue subpoenas during investigations if a witness refused to cooperate, but those powers were placed on the bargaining table during the 2018 contract negotiations with the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild (SPOG).

During that process, which largely neutralized the 2017 ordinance, the city’s negotiating team agreed not to implement those elements of the accountability ordinance. Although the contract allowed the city to unilaterally bring SPOG back to the bargaining table to negotiate the OPA and OIG’s right to issue subpoenas, the negotiating team has not revisited the issue.

As a result, although SPD officers have been required to comply with OPA and OIG investigations for the past three years, the two offices have had no legal recourse if a witness decided not to testify. Neither office has needed to issue a subpoena to obtain testimony or evidence from an SPD officer, so the ordinance would be a proactive measure.

In a press release accompanying the announcement, Durkan said the proposal would “set the City on better footing to pursue stronger accountability measures in our collective bargaining agenda for the next round of negotiations with SPOG,” which expires at the end of the month.

Herbold’s public safety council committee will take up the legislation on December 8.

City’s Recession-Era Budget Includes Modest Cuts to Police, Promises of Future Investments in Community Safety

This story originally appeared at the South Seattle Emerald.

by Erica C. Barnett

The Seattle City Council adopted a 2021 budget today that reduces the Seattle Police Department’s budget while funding investments in alternatives to policing; repurposes most of Mayor Jenny Durkan’s proposed $100 million “equitable investment fund” to council priorities; and replaces the encampment-removing Navigation Team with a new program intended to help outreach workers move unsheltered people into shelter and permanent housing. 

And although council member Kshama Sawant, who votes against the budget every year, decried the document as a “brutal austerity budget,” it contained fewer cuts than council members and the mayor feared they would have to make when the economy took a nosedive earlier this year. 

The council received two major boosts from the executive branch this budget cycle. First, the council’s budget benefited from a better-than-expected revenue forecast from the City Budget Office that gave them an additional $32.5 million to work with. And second, Durkan expressed support for the council’s budget, portraying it as a compromise that preserved all of the $100 million she had proposed spending “on BIPOC communities,” albeit not in the form she initially imagined. This show of goodwill (or political savvy) from the mayor signaled a sharp turnaround from this past summer, when she vetoed a midyear spending package that also included cuts to police.

Here’s a look at some of the biggest changes the council made to the mayor’s original proposal. 

Seattle Police Department

The council’s budget for police will be a disappointment to anyone who expected the council to cut SPD’s funding by 50%, as several council members pledged last summer at the height of the protests against police brutality sparked by George Floyd’s murder in May. Council members acknowledged that the cuts were smaller and slower than what protesters have demanded but said that the City is just at the beginning of the process of disinvesting in police and investing in community-based public safety. 

“Our goal is not about what the golden number of police officers is in this moment,” council public safety committee chair Lisa Herbold (West Seattle) said. “It’s about shifting our vision of what public safety is into the hands of community-based responses in those instances where those kinds of responses not only reduce harm but can deliver community safety in a way that police officers sometimes cannot.” 

Council member Tammy Morales (South Seattle), who acknowledged earlier this month that “we will not reach our shared goal of a 50% reduction in one budget cycle,” said that in her estimation, “increasing police staffing wrongly presumes that they can fill the roles” of the “nurses and support staffers and housing specialists” that the City plans to hire in the future.

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Although the 2021 budget does cut police spending by around 20%, the bulk of that reduction comes from shifting some police responsibilities, including parking enforcement and the 911 dispatch center, out of the department. The rest of the cuts are largely achieved through attrition — taking the money allocated to vacant positions and spending it on other purposes. 

For example, the council’s budget funds a total of 1,343 SPD positions next year, down from 1,400 in Durkan’s budget, for a total savings (including a last-minute amendment adopted Monday) of just over $8 million. That money will be removed from the police department and spent on future community-led public safety projects, which will be identified by a participatory budgeting process led by King County Equity Now.

At Monday’s council briefing meeting, some council members expressed hesitation about a last-minute amendment from Mosqueda cutting an additional $2 million from SPD’s budget, noting that the department now predicts it will be able to hire more than the 114 new officers it previously projected for next year. And at least one council member found it odd that the number of SPD employees the amendment predicts will leave next year — 114 — is exactly the same as the number of new hires predicted in the mayor’s budget, for a net gain of exactly zero officers.

“The fact that we are anticipating 114 attritions seems a little cute to me, to be honest, given that the number [of hires] in the [mayor’s] staffing plan … is 114,” Herbold said during the council’s morning briefing. “It just feels like it is an attempt to respond to the call for no new net officers and it confuses the situation, I think.” In the end, only Alex Pedersen, who represents Northeast Seattle, voted against the cuts.

Community Safety

The council’s budget puts $32 million toward future investments in community-led public safety efforts that would begin to replace some current functions of the police department, such as responding to mental health crises and domestic violence calls.  Continue reading “City’s Recession-Era Budget Includes Modest Cuts to Police, Promises of Future Investments in Community Safety”

Morning Fizz: City Will Repair West Seattle Bridge, Won’t Earmark License Fee for Bridge Maintenance

Image via City of Seattle

1. This morning, Mayor Jenny Durkan announced that the city will repair, rather than replace, the West Seattle Bridge.

According to the Seattle Department of Transportation, repairing the bridge will cost around $47 million, plus an additional $50 million for “traffic mitigation” and ongoing maintenance of several hundred thousand dollars a year. Rebuilding the bridge would have cost between $310 million and $522 million, according to the city’s estimate.

The decision to repair the bridge doesn’t mean the city won’t have to replace it eventually. Instead, the repairs could extend the useful life of the bridge by up to 40 years—essentially, the length of time the bridge was expected to last until city crews discovered significant cracks in the structure and took the bridge out of commission earlier this year.

There is a possibility that the bridge could fail sooner than that—about 5 percent, according to a cost-benefit analysis by the engineering firm WSP that the city released last month. (For a detailed look at that analysis, which also includes higher long-term estimates that “monetize” certain risk factors and include inflation-adjusted maintenance costs over the remaining life of the bridge, I recommend Mike Lindblom’s October 20 piece in the Seattle Times.) SDOT director Sam Zimbabwe said Tuesday that SDOT’s own experts “anticipate that we can get 15 years out of the bridge,” but added, “We can’t give a date certain on the point when the repairs will stop working.”

Durkan said Wednesday that she had been leaning toward replacing the bridge, but that a realistic timeline for what SDOT calls the “rapid replacement” option—”perhaps five years,” once time for environmental review and permitting is factored in—was just too long. “It became clear that the amount of money and the time it would take were not feasible options,” Durkan said. The city believes they can repair the bridge by mid-2022. Maintaining a repaired bridge will cost significantly more than maintaining a brand-new one, because engineers will have to inspect the bridge frequently to make sure that it isn’t showing signs of failure.

“It makes no sense to build a bridge that does only one thing… so I’m hoping to have a conversation with our colleagues at Sound Transit to see if the city can work with them to build a joint crossing for the bridge that they are going to build.”—Mayor Jenny Durkan

Meanwhile, Sound Transit still plans to build its own light rail bridge connecting West Seattle to downtown parallel to the existing bridge. Durkan, who sits on the Sound Transit board, suggested that the new bridge should include bike lanes and sidewalks for pedestrians. “It makes no sense to build a bridge that does only one thing,” Durkan said. “I think we need more transit capacity, more pedestrian capacity, and more bike capacity, so I’m hoping to have a conversation with our colleagues at Sound Transit to see if the city can work with them to build a joint crossing for the bridge that they are going to build.”

Image via WSP

2. While Durkan and SDOT staffers were discussing the West Seattle bridge with press yesterday, West Seattle’s representative on the city council, Lisa Herbold, was making the case for a proposal she co-sponsored, along with Alex Pedersen and Andrew Lewis, to use the proceeds from a $20 increase in the city’s vehicle license fee to pay for bridge maintenance, including on the West Seattle Bridge.

The vehicle license fee moved forward to a final vote on Wednesday, but it won’t be dedicated to bridges; instead, under a substitute offered by council president Lorena González, the city will adopt a spending plan for the proceeds from the fee— around $3.6 million next year, and $7.2 million a year after that—after a process to identify stakeholder priorities.

“I support a $20 increase to the vehicle license fee because I believe it is necessary to support ongoing operations of our city’s transit services and the maintenance of our transportation infrastructure and networks,” González said. “I do feel, however, that more work and stakeholder engagement must be done before we can decide how to appropriate this additional revenue.”

Herbold countered that the bridge maintenance proposal was an attempt to address problems identified last year by the city auditor, who found that “the City is not spending enough to keep its bridges in good condition and avoid costly future repairs,” particularly given the high number of bridges that are near the end of their useful lifespan. The city spends about $6.6 million each year on bridge maintenance, the audit found—”far below SDOT’s most conservative estimate of what is needed—$34 million.”

Under the plan adopted Tuesday and headed to final approval next week, the city will hold a three-month process to get input from stakeholders on how to spend the $20 fee, and adopt a plan by the middle of next year.

3. Next year’s King County budget will be almost 7 percent smaller than in 2020, thanks to cuts that fell heavily on the Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention (DAJD) and the King County Sheriff’s Office. The council opted for slightly smaller cuts to both departments’ budgets than County Executive Dow Constantine proposed in September: instead of an $8 million cut to the sheriff’s office, the council only cut around $6 million, amounting to less than 2 percent of the department’s 2019-2020 budget; the cut to the DAJD’s budget likewise totaled less than two percent of its budget.

The council also added some funding for the sheriff’s office, including $175,000 for emphasis patrols outside the county courthouse on 3rd Avenue, where the Seattle Police Department has also targeted special patrols in the past.

The largest portion of the cut to the sheriff’s budget is $4.6 million in marijuana tax revenue that the council voted to redirect toward anti-marijuana programming for youth and programs that help clear marijuana convictions from clients’ records. When Constantine proposed shifting marijuana tax revenue away from the sheriff’s office in September, Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht publicly claimed that the move would cost the county as many as 30 officers, largely affecting residents of unincorporated King County. KCSO did not respond to PubliCola’s request for comment.

However, the council also added some funding for the sheriff’s office, including $175,000 for emphasis patrols outside the county courthouse on 3rd Avenue, where the Seattle Police Department has also targeted special patrols in the past. Several of the council members who voted to provide funding for the patrols expressed hesitation about their votes; when casting her vote in support, Council Chair Claudia Balducci commented that the county will eventually need to “back off and let Seattle patrol Seattle’s streets.”

The council’s budget package also included an array of provisos (spending restrictions) put forward by council members Girmay Zahilay and Dembowski intended to lay out a roadmap for downsizing the county’s law enforcement and detention operations. The provisos included directives for Constantine to assemble reports on the county’s juvenile detention center, fare enforcement officers, and school resource officers, and to provide the council with a plan to meet the goal of zero youth detention set by Constantine himself in July.

Lisa Herbold: Paying for Bridge Maintenance Benefits Everyone Who Uses Seattle’s Streets

By Lisa Herbold

Seattle is a city of hills and water; thus we are also a city of bridges. Our bridges are critical for mobility and both the local and regional economy.  Bridges are also critical transit infrastructure. That’s why I, along with Councilmembers Alex Pedersen and Andrew Lewis, have introduced legislation, along with a companion budget action for 2021, that would create a new $20 vehicle license fee (VLF) to pay for critical bridge maintenance throughout the city. The fee, if it’s approved by the Council this week, will be added to the existing $20 fee that funds additional Metro bus hours through the Seattle Transportation Benefit District.

The closure of the West Seattle Bridge on March 23 placed Seattle’s dependence on its bridges in stark relief. Every person and business in West Seattle, or anyone going to West Seattle, has felt the impact of this closure. Before it was closed, the West Seattle Bridge carried 17,000 daily transit riders on 13 routes making 900 daily trips. Two of these routes—the RapidRide C Line and Route 120—were among the top 10 routes for ridership in all of King County.

But the West Seattle Bridge is hardly the only vulnerable bridge in Seattle; for decades, funding for critical maintenance has fallen short, allowing the city’s bridges to fall into further and further disrepair. In September, the City Auditor released an audit, requested by Councilmember Pedersen, that focused on 77 bridges owned and operated by the Seattle Department of Transportation. That audit reported that bridge funding is well below the minimum annual $34 million level needed for the long-term health of this critical infrastructure.

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The audit notes the overall condition of SDOT’s bridges has declined during the last decade and that Seattle is “not spending enough on the upkeep and preservation of its bridges, and risks becoming out of compliance with federal regulations.” This is, unfortunately, consistent with previous findings on the state of Seattle’s bridges, including an SDOT report from 2013 that found that 43 of the city’s bridges were “functionally obsolete,” and suggested that the city had a bridge maintenance backlog of nearly $2 billion.

We must address this underinvestment and protect our Frequent Transit Network, which includes all routes that operate with frequencies of 15 minutes or less for most of the day. Continue reading “Lisa Herbold: Paying for Bridge Maintenance Benefits Everyone Who Uses Seattle’s Streets”

Officials Announce Changes to Police Union Negotiation Strategy, But Accountability and Bargaining Experts Say More Should Be Done

Mayor Jenny Durkan (center) and City Council member Lisa Herbold (right)

By Paul Kiefer

On Wednesday, Mayor Jenny Durkan and City Council member Lisa Herbold announced a pair of adjustments to the make-up of the bodies responsible for negotiating collective bargaining agreements with Seattle’s police unions. For the first time, all three of the city’s accountability partners—the Office of Police Accountability, the Office of the Inspector General (OIG), and the Community Policing Commission (CPC)—will formally advise the city in preparation for, and during, negotiations with the police unions, and they will be able to attend bargaining sessions when police accountability is on the agenda.

Previously, only the OPA advised the city. This will be the first time the CPC, which represents the interests of the public rather than any branch of city government, will have an official role in police contract negotiations.

Second, a member of the City Council’s central staff will now sit at the bargaining table itself; in the past, the bargaining team was composed entirely of the mayor’s staff and staff from departments indirectly under the mayor’s direction. The move was foreshadowed in a January 2020 council resolution “affirming the city’s good faith intent” to consider addressing community and oversight groups’ concerns about the police union collective bargaining process, but that resolution did not name any specific changes to the city’s bargaining strategy.

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In comparison to the last round of contract negotiations, these changes mark some notable shift in Durkan’s approach to negotiations. During the end of the last bargaining process in 2018, both the council and the accountability partners relied on second-hand information provided by the mayor’s office to monitor negotiations and assess proposed contracts. This year, accountability advocates hope that these shake-ups will ensure that longstanding recommendations for improving accountability within SPD are finally enshrined within the police union contracts.

In the press release that accompanied the announcement, OPA director Andrew Myerberg cast the move as a step toward “ensuring public trust and confidence” in the city’s bargaining process with the police unions; he was echoed by Inspector General Lisa Judge, as well as by CPC co-chairs Rev. Harriet Walden and Prachi Dave, who wrote that the inclusion of the CPC in the negotiating process will be “an opportunity to help ensure the reforms in the landmark 2017 Police Accountability Ordinance are fully implemented.”

“Just because you have a [council] representative at the table doesn’t mean that the bargaining process will proceed in a way that’s transparent to the public.”—Peter Nguyen, former Labor Relations (LR) representative during police contract negotiations

The 2018 Seattle Police Officers Guild (SPOG) contract—and Durkan’s approach to negotiations—drew widespread criticism from accountability experts, including retired judge and former OPA auditor Anne Levinson and the CPC,  who said that the contract undercut major improvements to accountability that were enacted in the historic 2017 accountability ordinance.

A key problem, Levinson told PubliCola, was that — as she understands — the Mayor’s Office’s goal during the negotiations was not to ensure that the reforms they promised to the public were fully realized. “At a minimum [the Mayor’s Office] should have been saying, ‘here is how a proposed provision is different than what the community was promised and what was adopted in the accountability ordinance,’ or, ‘here is how the proposal would lessen, rather than strengthen, accountability and not serve the public as well,” said Levinson. “There was an obvious lack of an independent voice for accountability reform and community perspective.”

Peter Nguyen, who represented the LR at the bargaining table with SPOG in 2018 (and worked as a legislative aide to council member Dan Strauss) but no longer works for the city, shares Levinson’s view. He was one of only five people on the city’s negotiating team that year, sitting beside then-counsel to the mayor Ian Warner, private attorney Otto Klein, and representatives from SPD’s Human Resources unit and SPD’s command staff.

Nguyen’s interview with PubliCola was the first time he’s gone on record to speak about the city’s labor negotiations strategies; it’s rare for labor negotiation professionals to give interviews on the subject. “The major failure of transparency when it comes to police bargaining in its current form in Seattle,” Nguyen told PubliCola before the mayor’s announcement, “is that negotiations can and essentially are driven by a single individual [the mayor] who cannot possibly reflect the collective interest of our entire city when it comes to public safety, and who is not subject to the proper checks and balances which would safeguard the public good.” Continue reading “Officials Announce Changes to Police Union Negotiation Strategy, But Accountability and Bargaining Experts Say More Should Be Done”

Morning Fizz: Planning for Civil Unrest, Dismantling the Navigation Team, and Rethinking Prosecution

Image via King County Elections

1. As the federal government and state police prepare for possible civil unrest on Election Night, the city of Seattle says it does not plan to physically open its Emergency Operations Center, which coordinates emergency response during crisis situations and extreme weather and public health events.

However, the Seattle Police Department has restricted time off for officers who may be deployed to respond to demonstrations during the week following the election, and the city has sent information to businesses in neighborhoods where protests are common, such as  Capitol Hill, about “how to prepare and secure their employees and customers as well as their property to mitigate the impact of broken windows and graffiti, should that occur,” according to a spokeswoman for Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office.

As of November 1, 72 percent of ballots sent to registered voters in King County (and nearly 75 percent in Seattle) had been returned. Although Washington state votes by mail, the county has opened seven voting centers where people can vote in person until 8pm on election day, including two in Seattle.

Durkan’s spokeswoman said SPD “does not have any intelligence to indicate that there will be large-scale demonstrations on Election Night or the days following. Our partners at King County Elections have not reported any threats or security issues at any ballot boxes. As such, the SPD and Seattle Fire Department’s planning is for contingency purposes only, and does not indicate that there will be demonstrations or unrest.”

City council member Tammy Morales formerly introduced her proposed alternative to Durkan’s proposed replacement for the Navigation Team, called the HOPE Team, last week. The five-member team would be a scaled-back, service-focused version of the Outreach and Engagement Team proposed by Durkan and council member Andrew Lewis last month—a team that would itself be a kind of scaled-back Navigation Team, one that would put the members of the recently disbanded Navigation Team to work in new roles “coordinating” the work of the city’s contracted outreach providers.

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During the council budget hearing on Friday, Lewis suggested that the differences between his plan and Morales’ were minor, but said he wouldn’t co-sponsor her proposal “because of my involvement in a parallel process.” Last week, Morales told PubliCola she believes the language in Lewis’ proposal is still “vague” enough to allow members of the larger team to do direct outreach. “I think we need to leave that work to the service providers—to the folks that are out there every day and understand the importance of developing relationships,” Morales said.

The HOPE team would include a team manager, a liaison to coordinate with other departments like Seattle Public Utilities, which manages the “purple bag” encampment trash pickup program, one data analyst (read more about why one data person may not be enough for a team dedicated to coordinating outreach and shelter referrals here), and two “provider and neighborhood liaisons” who would work with King County Public Health and providers to “provide reasonable notification of a[n encampment] removal and time to plan and implement the relocation.” Continue reading “Morning Fizz: Planning for Civil Unrest, Dismantling the Navigation Team, and Rethinking Prosecution”

Morning Fizz: As City Hall Moves Closer to Agreement on Homeless Outreach, “Seattle Is Dying” Star Claims the Council Wants to Legalize Crime

Screen shot from “Seattle Is Dying”

1. Scott Lindsay, a former mayoral public safety advisor whose report on “prolific offenders” featured prominently in the viral “Seattle Is Dying” video, published a broadside against city council member Lisa Herbold yesterday on the website of a new political nonprofit called Change Washington. In the piece, Lindsay accuses Herbold of sneaking legislation into the 2021 budget that would  “create a legal loophole that would open the floodgates to crime in Seattle, effectively nullifying the city’s ability to protect persons and property from most misdemeanor crimes” and “negat[ing] the majority of Seattle’s criminal code.”

Change Washington was incorporated at the end of 2019. Its principals are former state Sen. Rodney Tom, a conservative Democrat from Medina who caucused (and voted) with Republicans; Sally Poliak, a “centrist Republican” political consultant in Seattle; Steve Gordon, a Republican donor from Pacific, WA who runs the anti-tax group “Concerned Taxpayers of Washington State“; and former Zillow executive Greg Schwartz, who left the company last year vowing to focus his energy on “Seattle’s chaotic streets and government.”

In his post, Lindsay refers to himself as a “dyed-in-the-wool blue Democrat.”

Lindsay’s claims about legalizing crime come from an extremely broad reading of a draft bill crafted with input from Decriminalize Seattle and King County Equity Now and posted on the website of the King County Department of Public Defense. Lindsay appears unaware that these groups participated in the drafting of the bill, and even claims that they have never expressed any support for its basic concepts. And despite Lindsay’s claim that Herbold is using an elaborate “backdoor” strategy to “[keep] the proposed legislation almost entirely hidden from the public,” Herbold has not actually proposed any legislation. Council staffers are still working on a draft, one of many bills the council will propose as part of the budget process.

Nor would the bill Lindsay incorrectly identifies as Herbold’s actually legalize crime. Instead, the county public defenders’ draft proposes several new defenses against prosecution for crimes that result from poverty or an unmanaged mental health or addiction disorder. Among other (welcome) changes, the bill would prevent prosecutors from throwing a person with untreated mental illness in jail because he broke a store window during a psychotic episode, or pressing charges against a hungry person because he stole food. It would not create a get-out-of-jail-free card for anyone who commits a crime and then claims to have—as Lindsay glibly puts it—”depression, anxiety, etc.”

Herbold says it’s high time the city reconsider its approach to offenses that result from poverty and lack of access to health care and housing. “As we’ve seen in the massive national and international protests in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, it is past time that we reexamine our systems which often perpetuate homelessness and economic instability,” she says. “The City currently spends approximately $20 million a year on incarceration, which is known to significantly increase the risk of housing instability and homelessness.” The council will discuss the proposal at its budget meeting Wednesday.

Lindsay’s arguments will almost certainly find purchase in right-wing talk radio and on TV chat shows whose ratings depend on keeping audiences in a perpetual state of fear. There will always be a large contingent of people, even in liberal Seattle, who don’t believe that crimes that result from poverty or untreated mental illness really exist. To these people, Lindsay’s assertion that defendants would only have to “claim drug or alcohol addiction” or fake a mental illness to evade justice will make sense. It’s easier to believe in a world where shady defense attorneys argue, as Lindsay predicts they will, that “drugs are a ‘basic need” for someone with a substance use disorder” to than to consider the possibility that throwing people in jail for being addicted, mentally ill, or poor doesn’t actually work.

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2. After the city council passed legislation establishing a new “outreach and engagement team” to coordinate the city’s response to unauthorized encampments, you might think Mayor Jenny Durkan would be thrilled. After all, the team keeps most members of the Navigation Team on the city payroll, while leaving the question of what, exactly, the team will do.

Instead, the mayor responded to the 7-1 vote by reigniting the debate over the council’s 2020 budget rebalancing package, which Durkan vetoed (unsuccessfully) after the council voted to eliminate the Navigation Team. In a statement Monday night, Durkan characterized the council’s vote as a decision to “restor[e] funding for the Human Services Department to coordinate homelessness outreach” and called the legislation “similar to previously proposed legislation negotiated in August” that would have kept the Navigation Team intact.  Continue reading “Morning Fizz: As City Hall Moves Closer to Agreement on Homeless Outreach, “Seattle Is Dying” Star Claims the Council Wants to Legalize Crime”

Council Takes a Small Bite Out of Police Budget As New Forecast Predicts Even Bigger Shortfall

This post originally appeared at the South Seattle Emerald.

By Erica C. Barnett

Advocates for an immediate 50 percent cut to the Seattle Police Department’s budget may have walked away unsatisfied Monday evening, when the city council passed a midyear budget package that lopped just 7 percent off SPD’s remaining 2020 budget. But the council majority left no question that they consider the short-term cuts a down payment on a more substantive proposal next year—one that, importantly, has a shot of making it through labor negotiations with the powerful police officers’ union.

The budget would eliminate the equivalent of 100 full-time officers through a combination of layoffs and attrition. The council made requests for specific layoffs—zeroing in, for example, on the Navigation Team, the mounted patrol, and the sworn portion of SPD’s public affairs office—but they have no power to actually dictate how the police department spends it budget, which is why no “defund the police” proposal (short of eliminating the department altogether) actually requires the chief to spend her budget in the way the council wants.

As a result, the rhetoric around the council’s cuts has often been far more heated than the modest changes suggest.

Council member Kshama Sawant, who cast the lone “no” vote against the rebalancing package (Debora Juarez was absent), accused her colleagues of passing an “austerity budget” that “fails working people” because it did not include her version of the so-called “Amazon” (payroll) tax. (Budget chair Teresa Mosqueda’s retort: “No one is siding with Jeff Bezos.”)

Mayor Durkan, who has held numerous press conferences to denounce the council majority’s more modest plan, issued a statement after the vote saying it was “unfortunate Council has refused to engage in a collaborative process to work with the Mayor, Chief Best, and community members to develop a budget and policies that respond to community needs while accounting for – not just acknowledging – the significant labor and legal implications involved in transforming” SPD.

The package of bills adopted Monday would also:

• Express a commitment to creating a new a civilian-led Department of Community Safety & Violence Prevention by the end of next year—a proposal Sawant mocked as “resolution to hope to study defunding the police”;

• Start the process of civilianizing the 911 system by putting a civilian director and deputy director in charge of the 911 call center (which is already run by non-sworn SPD personnel);

• Reallocate funding that Durkan originally allocated for an expansion of probation to community groups working to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 on vulnerable populations;

• Cut the salaries of SPD’s command staff (with the exception of Best, who would see her $294,000 salary reduced by less than $20,000);

Allocate $1.7 million to non-congregate shelter, through a proviso that would prohibit Durkan’s Human Services Department from spending the money on any other purpose

• Empower the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program to enroll new clients into its Co-LEAD program, which has been held up by the executive branch for months, without SPD participation; and

• Earmark $17 million for community organizations working to create new systems of community safety outside the police department.

• Move millions of dollars from levy funds that were supposed to pay to expand programs or create new ones to pay for the ongoing operations of city departments, such as the Seattle Department of Transportation and the Department of Education and Early Learning;

The changes adopted Monday amend Mayor Durkan’s original budget-balancing proposal, which relied heavily on a hiring freeze, emergency funds, federal grants, and levy dollars that had been allocated for other purposes to close an anticipated shortfall of more than $200 million. On Monday morning, just minutes before the weekly council briefing meeting, the mayor’s office distributed a memo from CBO director Ben Noble projecting an additional revenue shortfall of $26 million this year alone.

Near the end of almost eight straight hours of budget discussions, council member Lisa Herbold said she wanted to state for the record that “we as a council and the mayor’s office are in a really unique position to seize upon a moment in the city and in this country” by taking seriously community demands to redefine public safety and defund the police. “I am hopeful that we are more aligned in our desire to do that than it has appeared in the last two weeks.”

That hope seems optimistic. In adopting the midyear budget Monday, the council rejected Durkan’s proposal to discard the historical practice of two-year budgeting, demanded a report that would provide more transparency into how SPD is actually spending its budget, and prepared to overturn Durkan’s veto of a COVID relief plan that would temporarily drain the city’s emergency reserves until they can be replenished with funds from the new payroll tax that goes into effect in 2022. The council will start the whole process over again next month, when the mayor proposes her 2021 budget.

City Could Be On Hook for Nearly-Empty Hotel It’s Been Renting Since March

While the city and county debate whether to move people experiencing homelessness from individual rooms into mass shelters, which offer no privacy and minimal protection from airborne transmission of COVID-19, the city continued to pay for unused hotel rooms in a high-end downtown hotel through the end of June. Last Wednesday, the council learned that the city has only received a guarantee of $325,000 in federal reimbursement for the empty rooms, which were originally intended for first responders, leaving at least a $1.6 million gap.

The city rented the Executive Pacific Hotel’s 155 rooms in March, at a time when it seemed that emergency personnel responding to the COVID-19 pandemic might need a place to isolate during the crisis. When that turned out not to be the case (thanks largely to county-wide efforts that limited the number of cases), the city expanded eligibility to include health care workers, who didn’t end up needing many rooms, either. Ultimately, the hotel sat mostly empty during the city’s three-month lease, while thousands of homeless people slept outdoors or crowded into mass shelters—the city’s preferred solution for sheltering people during the crisis.

Because so few people ever stayed in the Executive Pacific Hotel, the city’s actual bill ended up being about $2 million—a sum that paid for about 12 hotel rooms a night. But budget director Ben Noble revealed Wednesday that the city could be on the hook for much of that cost, unless FEMA changes its mind about what it will reimburse.

Noble said he was hopeful that the federal government would reconsider its reimbursement, given that so many cities initially thought they would need mass hospitals and temporary housing for first responders during the early days of the pandemic.

“In terms of facilities, [the city] went out looking for a contract arrangement and that was the one they were able to find on short notice,” Noble said. “FEMA is apparently open to reconsidering the reimbursement, because as it turns out, we weren’t the only city who found itself in this situation at the time.”

Going forward, the city will be paying for the rooms it uses, rather than the cost of the entire hotel.

The larger context for the discussion about reimbursement is the fact that many cities, including San Francisco, Los Angeles, Baltimore, and New Orleans used high hotel vacancy rates as an opportunity to move people experiencing homelessness into individual rooms that offered more safety, privacy, and dignity than cots or mats in mass shelters. Mayor Jenny Durkan has resisted calls for a similar shift of resources in Seattle, preferring to re-distribute mass shelters so that people can sleep slightly further apart.

As council member Lisa Herbold noted Wednesday, the city already has a hotel/motel voucher program that could have been providing families and individuals with safe places to stay, if it had been funded adequately during the pandemic. As it was, the city didn’t have enough vouchers to offer the small number of homeless people removed from Cal Anderson Park during the city’s recent sweep of the CHOP protest zone.

“What is keeping us from boosting funding for that existing program and making those vouchers available for people who are currently in congregate-model shelters?” she asked. “I just imagine there are a lot of hotel rooms in the city that aren’t being used.”

In response, Noble pointed out the existing budget shortfall that will require about $300 million in midyear cuts.

It’s possible, perhaps likely, that the federal government would not see the wisdom in using FEMA dollars to move people into individual rooms rather than warehousing them in shelters. What’s harder to stomach is the argument that spending potentially millions of dollars on empty hotel rooms was a better use of those limited funds than filling some of those beds with people.

Does the City Council Want to “Fire Half the Police Department Overnight”? Fact-Checking the Mayor and Police Chief’s Claims

This piece originally appeared at the South Seattle Emerald.

After announcing proposals to shift 911 dispatch, the Office of Emergency Management, parking enforcement, and the Office of Police Accountability away from the Seattle Police Department Monday morning, Mayor Jenny Durkan delivered a fiery broadside against the city council, accusing them of proposing an ill-considered plan to slash police spending without giving any consideration to what comes next. Durkan, up for reelection next year, was in full campaign-speech mode, positioning herself as the lone adult among squalling children.

“Seven out of nine council members committed to cutting the Seattle Police Department’s budget by 50 percent without a plan,” Durkan said. “This is simply not responsible. You can’t govern by Twitter or bumper sticker.” Later, Durkan accused the council of making the “arbitrary” decision to “just cut 50 percent because that’s what people put on a placard.” Police Chief Carmen Best piled on, accusing the council of wanting to eliminate the jobs of half the police department this year.

But is that narrative accurate? And is it fair of the mayor to suggest that the council went to a demonstration and was convinced to cut half the police department by a protest sign? Here are some of the primary factual claims the mayor and police chief made to reporters and the public on Monday morning, and an assessment of their accuracy.

Claim #1: The city council has made “made the arbitrary decision to defund the Seattle Police Department by 50 percent this year in 2020 and 50 percent next year” without any plan or consideration of the impacts such a “blunt cut” would have on the city’s ability to respond to crime and other emergency calls. “The city council decided in the space of hours … that they were going to cut the police department by 50 percent,” Durkan said Monday.

The seven council members who committed to making significant cuts to the police department all made slightly different statements, so it’s difficult to generalize about what each of them, individually, believe.

However, the one thing that was unambiguous during last week’s budget meeting was that in 2020, the council intends to cut not 50 percent of the total police department budget (a scenario Durkan has used to suggest the council would immediately shut down the entire police department as soon as the budget passes in August, since half the money for 2020 has theoretically been spent) but half of the budget that will remain for the last four months of the year, or about $65 million over the $20 million in cuts the mayor’s office has already proposed.

Council budget committee chair Teresa Mosqueda said as much last Wednesday, as has public safety committee chair Lisa Herbold, who also emphasized that she supports cutting the remaining police budget over a four-month period, not all at once.

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Jackie Vaughn, an organizer with Decriminalize Seattle, which is working with the council to come up with a detailed plan for replacing some police functions with community-based organizations, said, “This scale-down of police will happen in a phased way, [and] the corresponding scale-up of community-based organizations would happen at the same time,” also “in a phased way, starting this year to prepare us for 2021.”

And council member Dan Strauss, who has said he supports eventual cuts of around 50 percent, called it “a false narrative to say that these approaches will not work and cannot work because they are not ready to [start] today. … The worst thing we can do is give organizations the responsibility of responding [to calls for service] without giving then the time they need to be successful.”

Like Durkan, who noted that her own proposal to cut the department by a total of 5 percent this year came about “in three weeks,” the council plans to come up with a plan to reallocate police dollars on a short timeline, but the cuts themselves will be phased in starting in September.

Moreover, since cuts that will involve actual layoffs will require a separate bargaining process with the Seattle Police Officers Guild (and some of the proposed changes will require approval by the court monitor overseeing the federal consent decree over the department), it’s possible, perhaps likely, that the biggest changes will be pushed back to the end of the year, possibly beyond. What the council is proposing is an acceleration, not an immediate, wholesale gutting of the department.

Claim #2: Cutting the police department means cutting cops… or perhaps an entire police precinct… or possibly no longer responding to 911 calls.

Durkan and Best have repeatedly made the alarmist claim that a 50 percent reduction to the police department’s budget would require them to “fir[e] half the police department overnight,” as Best put it Monday. At the press conference, Best said she wanted to “thank our officers for continuing to answer calls, running into the face of danger to offer aid, all while hearing a political conversation that half of them aren’t needed.” Best explained that “our budget is almost entirely personnel,” so cutting police would mean cutting an equivalent number of jobs.

The police department’s budget is actually 75 percent personnel; it has also grown tremendously over the years, usually outpacing the growth of the city budget as a whole. As Kevin Schofield of SCC Insight has demonstrated, the lion’s share of this growth has come not from adding officers but from salaries that have ballooned well beyond the average salary in Seattle, even before overtime is factored in. Simply eliminating overtime (such as the $6.3 million officers were paid for guarding the East Precinct like a citadel under siege during recent Hill protests) would reduce the department’s annual budget by more than $30 million.

As for the department being forced to “quit responding to 911 calls,” as Durkan put it, or eliminating the entire Southwest police precinct… Neither activists nor the council have proposed eliminating the 911 system. (Decriminalize Seattle’s plan, for example, calls for phasing in the replacement of 911 operators with civilian dispatchers.) And as Herbold pointed out during the city council briefing on Monday, the mayor and police chief do not have the authority to shut down a police precinct; only the council can make that kind of decision.

Claim #3: The city of Seattle has already taken the steps to “rethink policing” that other cities are just beginning to consider, so there’s no reason to make radical changes.

“We have done so much of what is being called for nationally. We’re already there,” Best said. Durkan said people pointing to Camden, NJ, which dismantled its police force seven years ago, as a model for the future of policing in America have “misunderstood” what happened there. After reassessing a costly and often violent force, Camden did “the things that we’ve been doing in the last 10 years in Seattle— deescalation training, outreach, mental health interventions.” In Minneapolis, where George Floyd’s murder sparked similar calls to disband the police, “all the things that they are [proposing], we have already done,” Durkan said. “The Seattle Police Department’s deescalation training is literally the model for the nation.” Continue reading “Does the City Council Want to “Fire Half the Police Department Overnight”? Fact-Checking the Mayor and Police Chief’s Claims”