Skip to main content

Why 'defund the police' has become the rallying cry at Seattle protests

caption: Seattle police officers dressed in riot gear, left, stand in a line across 11th Street, opposite thousands of people protesting police brutality and the unjust deaths of Black Americans at the hands of law enforcement on the fifth day of protests following the violent police killing of George Floyd on Tuesday, June 2, 2020, in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Seattle.
Enlarge Icon
Seattle police officers dressed in riot gear, left, stand in a line across 11th Street, opposite thousands of people protesting police brutality and the unjust deaths of Black Americans at the hands of law enforcement on the fifth day of protests following the violent police killing of George Floyd on Tuesday, June 2, 2020, in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Seattle.
KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

On Wednesday, after a rally in the Capitol Hill neighborhood, community organizers presented Mayor Jenny Durkan and Police Chief Carmen Best with three demands:

  • Defund and demilitarize the police force;
  • Dedicate more resources to health and social services;
  • Release protesters without filing charges.

Advocates say Seattle does not need a police force that looks, and often operates, like a military unit, with automatic rifles slung across their shoulders and their identities obscured.

The “defund police” movement stems from frustration with police and their soldier-like posture — and an acknowledgment that officers often respond to people with aggression that is disproportionate to the offenses they're suspected of committing.

The Seattle police budget for this year is approximately $409 million, which accounts for just over a quarter of the city's general fund budget.

Cutting it in half, as advocates have proposed, could redirect roughly $205 million toward social services addressing homelessness, mental health needs, and the economic disparities facing Black and Brown communities.

Shaun Scott, advocate and former Seattle council contender, said the movement coalescing on the street calls for a shift in city budget priorities — shifting dollars away from the police department and toward social and health services.

And while Scott is in favor of defunding the police department, he believes a more drastic change is needed.

“Racism and discrimination are embedded in the police department here, and I don’t think going and tinkering around the edges is going to get us very far,” Scott said.

He said Seattle should adopt an approach being considered by Minneapolis city leaders, one that would dismantle the entire department and leave the city to start from scratch.

“That’s a difficult political lift, and on the way to that solution, the very least we could be doing is defunding and identifying the areas of waste,” Scott said.

Similar demands have been made across the country. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti on Wednesday agreed to slash the Los Angeles Police Department budget by more than $100 million, after a crowd of people stood outside his home chanting “Defund the police.”

Activists in New York City have called for a $1 billion cut to the NYPD budget, which is $6 billion.

Amy Storm, a resident of West Seattle, said money spent on military grade equipment for police could be better spent elsewhere. “Every dollar spent on a riot shield is stolen from the mouth of a low income child in this city. Every penny spent on tear gas is stolen from the budget of a school,” she told the committee.

“If you cared about crime, you would fund social programs … not throw money at a white supremacist organization so they can buy another Humvee,” Storm said. “But most vitally right now, you wouldn't allow the use of tear gas on your constituents in the middle of a respiratory pandemic.”

This would not be as easy as it seems, however. School budgets aren’t tied to the city budget, for example. But Storm’s statement speaks to the larger idea: social services are minimal, while the law enforcement thrives.

Police conduct

The use of tear gas — as well as other instances of alleged excessive use of force — has led to more than 15,000 complaints filed against the Seattle Police Department since the protests got underway last week. The Seattle Office of Police Accountability says it is investigating these claims.

A significant portion of the complaints surround a child who was reportedly pepper sprayed by police on May 30 during a peaceful demonstration in Westlake. A video of the aftermath shows the child screaming in agony as milk is poured into his eyes, in an attempt to flush the chemical out.

Others submitted complaints surrounding protest on Monday in Capitol Hill. A video from the demonstration shows an officer pulling a magenta umbrella away from a protester, before police deployed a large quantity of pepper spray. This was also captured on video. Some said protesters were attacked without clear warnings to disperse.

Mark Mullens, a Seattle police officer and member of the Community Police Commission insisted on Wednesday that it was department policy to provide warnings through bullhorns before using flashbangs or tear gas for crowd control.

“Maybe in the spot where you were, that wasn’t done,” Mullens said. “But in every situation where gas was deployed or about to be deployed, there were warnings given.”

But Charlie Ellis, who attended the May 30 protest in Westlake, told KUOW he did not hear police issue any clear warning to disperse prior to escalating crowd control measures.

“The police used tactics to create a powder keg situation,” he said. “They were the ones who threw the match, and stopped all attempts to snuff it out.”

Ellis said the demonstration was peaceful until police antagonized protesters. “We were chanting and you know, some people are yelling at the police,” he said. “But like, that's about the worst that it got. No one was inciting violence.”

Seattle City Council president Lorena Gonzalez during the special meeting on Wednesday, brought up the use of tear gas during Seattle’s Black-led protests. The Geneva Convention, an international set of mandates on armed conflict, has banned the chemical that is used for dispersal in Seattle.

Gonzalez asked Lisa Judge, the city’s inspector general, for her opinion on Seattle police’s use of the irritant, during the meeting.

Judge said she could speak to her own experience, which includes more than 20 years of serving as principal assistant city attorney for the City of Tucson. She was also senior in-house counsel to the Tucson Police Department.

“That was not an agent that was used [by Tuscon]," Judge said. "I think it speaks to broader tactics of using munitions at all in crowds.”

Judge said that staffing protests with officers trained in effective communication and plainclothes was key.

“Polo shirts or, you know, things that weren't militaristic. [If] you put officers out in a situation that invites confrontation, what you tend to get is confrontation.”

Norm Stamper, a former Seattle police chief, discussed the implications of cops wearing riot gear and using military-style vehicles with KUOW’s Seattle Now.

Stamper, who was chief during the 1999 World Trade Organization protests in Seattle, said riot gear sends a message that there is a difference between police officers and other people.

“The symbolism of militarism is that if you're an army, you are in effect, an occupying force. You have set yourself apart from your citizen partners,” Stamper said.

He said that despite the significance of that symbolism, during the World Trade Organization protests in which police wore face shields and held batons, he wanted to keep his officers safe.

“As a police chief, the last thing I wanted was to put my police officers in harm's way,” Stamper said. “But we do have to ask ourselves ... what is the significance of that symbolism? How does that affect our partnership?”

Police reform advocate Evana Enabulele confronted Durkan on Wednesday about police tactics. Protesters have maintained that police have escalated otherwise peaceful demonstrations.

“People are going to remember you after your seat in office is over and what are you going to say? You can't keep doing things over and over again and apologizing for it,” Enabulele said during an impromptu meeting between advocates and officials at City Hall.

Durkan, upon Enabulele’s request, addressed thousands of protesters who had marched to Pioneer Square from Cal Anderson Park. Wednesday was the second day in a row that Durkan took the microphone and was met with jeers and intermittent applause.

“True public safety does not come from police,” Durkan said to the crowd. “True public safety comes from accessing health care, education, justice, and good paying jobs, and respect and dignity.”

The next day, Thursday, Durkan struck a different tone during a press conference.

“While these protests are going on, police are still called to respond to any number of actions from domestic violence to burglary to assaults,” she said. “And when people dial 911, they want the police or the fire department to show up. And so we have to make sure that we have enough people and resources to make that true.”

Durkan said that the city would need to make budget cuts across the board in light of the pandemic, but wouldn’t be slashing the police department’s funding by half.

The complaints emerging this week are another chapter of the Seattle Police Department’s history of excessive force.

An outside nine-month investigation, conducted by the U.S. Department of Justice and U.S. Attorney’s Office in 2011, found that Seattle Police engaged in a pattern of “using unnecessary or excessive force.”

Robert Cruickshank worked as the senior communications advisor to Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn from 2011 to 2013. He was present when the federal consent decree was put in place.

On Wednesday, a motion to escape federal oversight was withdrawn by the City of Seattle. That same day, Durkan also lifted a citywide curfew that had been in place since May 30.

Seattle Police Chief Carmen on Thursday announced an order for officers to stop covering their badge numbers with so-called mourning badges.

“The department has to strike a balance between honoring officers who are killed in the line of duty and our responsibility to maintain the public’s trust," Best said. "All officers will have their badge numbers prominently displayed.”

Best later said on Friday that her officers would stop using tear gas on protesters for 30 days.

READ: Seattle Police will stop using tear gas on protesters, chief says

Cruickshank, who attended the Not This Time rally at Westlake Park on May 30, told KUOW it was time for the city to implement new changes, and that it was time to look at defunding the police department.

“It’s been 10 years and we still see police misconduct — police shooting people,” Cruickshank said. “We have to take some new steps to fix this.”

Amy Radil contributed to this story.

Why you can trust KUOW