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caption: FILE: Seattle police officers dressed in riot gear stand in a cloud of chemical agents and pepper spray  on the fifth day of protests following the violent police killing of George Floyd on Tuesday, June 2, 2020, at the intersection 11th and Pine Street in Seattle.
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FILE: Seattle police officers dressed in riot gear stand in a cloud of chemical agents and pepper spray on the fifth day of protests following the violent police killing of George Floyd on Tuesday, June 2, 2020, at the intersection 11th and Pine Street in Seattle.
Credit: KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

Seattle City Council votes to cut police staffing and salaries

The Seattle City Council has passed multiple amendments that add up to major changes for the city's police department. They say they’re making these changes in response to weeks of protests against systemic racism and police brutality.

Reporter Amy Radil spoke with KUOW's Paige Browning about the council actions.

Things are starting to shift. What are the biggest changes the council approved today?

Amy Radil: The council approved a lot of provisos expressing their intention that SPD lay off dozens of officers, they want to shrink the department by about 100 officers, with hopes that Chief Carmen Best will navigate the collective bargaining process to spare the newer, more diverse recruits instead of performing layoffs in order of seniority.

The Council also voted to allocate $4 million to community groups that focus on restorative justice and violence prevention and another $10 million to help those groups “scale up.” Meanwhile, they attempted to zero out the funding for SPD’s mounted patrol and school resource officers, and to reduce funding for public affairs, harbor patrol, SWAT and other units.

It adds up to a few million dollars. But the unanimous votes were a striking message from the Council for next year’s budget as well. Seven of the nine council members had pledged to “defund SPD” by seeking a cut of 50%, in line with the demands of the groups Decriminalize Seattle and King County Equity Now.

Two council members, Alex Pedersen and Debora Juarez, had said they needed more information. Wednesday they largely voted with their colleagues. Pedersen said he supports the goals of the protests.

“While the communications I’ve received from constituents offer a variety of views, I see common ground for rethinking and revamping what effective and equitable public safety means as we strive to achieve healthy communities,” he said.

Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda said if the meeting weren’t virtual she would have given Pedersen a standing ovation.

But how much power does the Council have to make these changes?

We’ve heard the back and forth with the chief and the mayor on this. Council members said these are "pointed recommendations" but it’s up to the chief to run the department. And she made clear yesterday she feels very sidelined by these proposals.

Councilmember Lisa Herbold said, “We all know Chief Best holds authority for how to make decisions for how and where these reductions might occur, through the process of delivering layoff notices.”

And these changes will also have to be negotiated with the Seattle Police Officers Guild, so it could take a lot of time.

It sounds like the council is trying to pare down not just the number of police officers, but how much they earn?

People may have seen Forbes article several weeks ago which showed some Seattle patrol officers earning more than $300,000 because of the overtime they accrue.

Councilmember Kshama Sawant says the Council has the authority to lower command staff salaries to the lowest salary in their "zone," and that could add up to $500,000 across the command staff including the chief.

“There are 13 executives in the police department’s command structure making between $200,000 and $300,000 per year. This is a classic example of the bloated Seattle police budget.”

So the Council enacted her proposal to lower those command staff salaries. They can’t lower the salaries of union positions without collective bargaining, but the council approved a measure calling for monthly reports on all officers that earn more than $150,000.

And what action did the council ultimately take on funding for the navigation teams?

They eliminated the Navigation Teams as they’re currently constructed, and the funding for sweeps or encampment removals. These are the teams of police and human services employees that try to direct unsheltered people to available shelter beds. They’re also in charge of removing and cleaning up encampment sites. And as Councilmember Debora Juarez tried to clarify here, this looks like it will be a pretty big transition.

“If the navigation team with the police officers there is a failed experiment I’d rather someone just say that,” she said.

A narrow majority of council members said yes, it is a failed experiment, they don’t think the police and human services employees are getting the best outcomes.

They voted 5-4 (with Councilmembers Mosqueda, Gonzalez, Morales, Sawant and Herbold in support) to fund outreach grants to nonprofits instead, and the parks department will continue to do trash pickup.

What’s next?

On Monday the Council will approve their entire “rebalancing” package – that’s all the changes they’re making to this year's budget, including to SPD, to address the funding shortfalls caused by the pandemic. And within just several weeks they and the mayor will start work on next year’s budget. Right now Councilmember Mosqueda says they have plans to cut about 40% of SPD’s funding, partly by moving some functions like the 911 call center and parking enforcement outside the department.