Seattle mayor vetoes City Council's cuts to police budget

The budget would have cut up to 100 officers, slashed some salaries and reallocated an additional $14 million to other services


By Evan Bush
The Seattle Times

SEATTLE — Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan, after vetoing Friday the revised 2020 budget approved last week by the City Council, called for new collaboration with council members, with whom she’s often been at odds.

“The people of Seattle expect us to work together,” Durkan said during a Friday afternoon news conference, adding that she had spoken to Council President M. Lorena González on how to “make changes in a more thoughtful, deliberate way.”

Seattle Police use pepper spray on protesters as they advance their line during a
Seattle Police use pepper spray on protesters as they advance their line during a "Youth Day of Action and Solidarity with Portland" on Saturday, July 25, 2020. (Bettina Hansen/Seattle Times/TNS)

The council’s adjustments to the budget would have cut up to 100 police officers, slashed the salaries of police command staff and also scrapped the city’s Navigation Team, which performs outreach to people experiencing homelessness and clears encampments. Durkan strongly opposed those measures. Seattle Police Department Chief Carmen Best retired in objection to them.

Durkan described the council’s cuts to police as imprudent, saying they had “no plan for how the city will bridge gaps in the police response that will be caused if we lose 100 police officers” and “no plans for how the city will address encampments or RVs that pose a public safety risk.”

She also objected to cutting the salaries of SPD’s command staff.

The mayoral veto will also stop some $14 million in additional funding the council had intended for community organizations.

“Look, it’s a loan I’m not sure we can repay,” Durkan said, adding that she did not think the city could get money out of the door by year’s end and that the city faced a challenging budget shortfall.

The money would have been loaned between city departments and could have been accounted for in future budget cuts to the police department or elsewhere. Durkan said she is concerned about funding and continuing core city services during the next budget cycle.

Best’s resignation from the top post at SPD, for the moment, seems to have forced a detente in the frosty relationship openly acknowledged by both the mayor and many city council members.

Council members will have 30 days to reconsider the vetoed legislation, negotiate and then vote again. The council needs a two-thirds vote to override the mayor’s veto.

González said she disagreed with Durkan’s veto, but promised to work with the mayor on a path forward.

“While I disagree with Mayor Durkan’s decision to veto the Council’s budget legislation, I hope that the public knows that their elected leaders are committed to working together on achieving a long-overdue transformation of our law enforcement and criminal justice systems that have for far too long perpetuated trauma and harm on our black, brown and indigenous neighbors,” González said in a news release.

Council member Andrew Lewis said it was a “shame” to lose Best and that he’s seen a “shift in rhetoric” among his colleagues on the council after her abrupt retirement.

“The mayor and council aren’t that far apart on a lot of things,” Lewis said. “If the rhetoric can dial down a bit and we can come to the table, between the council and mayor, we should be able to work something out here.”

Lewis said much attention has been directed at council’s decision to reduce the police force by up to 100 officers by year’s end. But some of those reductions would have been happened anyhow as officers left due to attrition and because the mayor has implemented a hiring freeze, he said.

As the council and mayor negotiate, Lewis said it would be important to better understand the effects of the hiring freeze, how a reduced force would impact police response times and how alternative first responder programs — such as the Seattle Fire Department’s Health One program, which responds to social, behavioral non-emergency calls — could scale up to meet demand.

Council member Tammy Morales said the mayor’s veto felt like a turn toward the “status quo” and said it could reduce trust between city politicians and the community groups as the Black Lives Matter movement demands structural change and equality.

“That wasn’t easy for our community members, when you’re talking about some Black-led organizations who already have a distrust for government because it hasn’t served them well, to come to council and ask for support and investment in their community. I think it was risky for them,” Morales said. “It just felt like the mayor was pointedly turning her back on community members who demand to end over-policing.”

Morales said she hoped the council would use its time intentionally to find points of agreement and that the mayor would negotiate and communicate what changes she would be willing to make. Morales said communities in her district — which includes the Rainier Beach, Beacon Hill, Chinatown/International District, SODO and Georgetown neighborhoods — should not be asked to wait for equity and resources.

“I would be lying if I didn’t say it hasn’t been frustrating and painful to be caught in the gears of a government system that is really structured to uphold racial inequity,” Morales said.

Two organizations at the center of the Black Lives Matter Movement — Decriminalize Seattle & King County Equity Now — issued a joint statement bemoaning Durkan’s veto.

“… City Council put forth modest changes to the police budget in response to the uprising in defense of Black lives and the economic shortfall created by COVID-19,” the statement said. “While publicly touting support and care for Black people, the Mayor vetoed and blocked a Black-led community response plan to gun violence — while providing no immediate alternative or justification.”

During her news conference, Durkan and Deputy Chief Adrian Diaz, who will lead SPD on an interim basis when Best officially steps down next month, made a case for the agency’s work and importance.

Diaz highlighted several recent arrests in homicide cases. He noted that homicides, arsons and aggravated assaults were up when compared to 2019.

“We have seen an increase in shots fired,” Diaz said, adding that the number of shots-fired incidences was up by some 55% since June 1 of this year. “These have resulted in 33 injuries and six deaths. They cannot continue.”

Diaz said police were still trying to understand what might be attributed to the rise in violent crimes.

Decriminalize Seattle & King County Equity Now said the mayor was vetoing a council budget that would have helped stem violence before police could respond to it.

“… Mayor Durkan highlighted the ‘recent increase in gun violence’ while vetoing the exact investment needed to prevent it — all in the same breath,” the organizers wrote, adding that some of that money would have gone to “Black-led organizations leading effective community responses to gun violence” that the mayor’s office “frequently touts.”

©2020 The Seattle Times

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