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Seattle City Council Deals Blow to BLM, Rejects Police Defunding

The Daily Beast logo The Daily Beast 8/5/2020 Kate Briquelet
a group of people standing in front of a crowd: Stephen Brashear/Getty © Provided by The Daily Beast Stephen Brashear/Getty

A majority of Seattle’s City Council on Wednesday voted down a proposal to slash the police department’s remaining 2020 budget by 50 percent.

The vote by the budget committee—which came one day after the city’s mayor and police chief held a press conference to criticize the proposal—was a setback for Black Lives Matter and anti-police brutality advocates who’ve pushed to defund departments across the U.S. and reallocate funds to community services, including housing and youth programs.

The plan, proposed by council member Kshama Sawant, would have cut $54 million from the Seattle PD immediately through layoffs and reallocated it to programs, including $34 million for affordable housing. Sawant was the only member to vote in favor of the proposal, while another council member abstained and the remaining seven voted against it.

While the council’s budget committee voted on a variety of amendments related to police funding, activists marched from a King County juvenile detention facility to City Hall. One reporter on scene captured demonstrators chanting, “Bad boys. Bad boys. Whatcha gonna do? Whatcha gonna do when we defund you?”

Seattle’s vote comes on the heels of other local governments, including the Washington D.C. Council, passing legislation to dismantle or cut the budgets of police departments. In late June, the Minneapolis City Council unanimously approved a proposal to disband the city’s police department—and replace it with a new Department of Community Safety and Violence Prevention—following the death of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man who was killed May 25 by a Minneapolis cop who kneeled on his neck during an arrest.

Minneapolis’ charter commission was expected to vote on the city council’s proposal on Wednesday. If approved, voters will decide on the amendment on a November ballot. 

The Seattle council’s budget committee unanimously passed a series of amendments, including adding $4 million to the Human Services Department for a community safety initiative which would be an “alternative to traditional policing.” The funding for that effort would come from a loan authorized by separate legislation.

They also voted to cut $886,000 from the Seattle PD and reallocate it to a proposal that would add $10 million for community-led organizations “to increase public safety.” (The remaining $9.1 million would come from interfund loan to be addressed in separate legislation.) The cuts approved included $36,000 from the police department’s remaining 2020 budget for implicit bias training; $50,000 from SPD’s 2020 travel budget; and $800,000 from the department’s recruitment and retention activities. 

The committee also unanimously approved a “consent package” which includes ordering the police chief to eliminate the mounted unit and public affairs unit, each of which has four officers; lay off five members of the community outreach unit; lay off two members of the 29-officer SWAT team; and let go of 30 officers through attrition. All told, the council approved a reduction of 54 officers from the department.

This package also included $50,000 in funding to contract with a community-based organization to create a non-police 911 response system.

On Monday, KOMO News revealed the proposal to slash the Seattle Police Department’s budget by 50 percent appeared to be “losing steam” among the nine council members. The remainder of the Seattle PD’s unspent budget is an estimated $188 million, the outlet reported.

Council member Sawant slammed her colleagues in an interview with the TV outlet and on Twitter, where she claimed Democrats on the budget committee “ganged up against our movement’s proposals to Defund the police...”

“I’m not surprised,” Sawant told KOMO News, “but it’s quite interesting to see how council members are now displaying how they actually stand and I hope members of the public are watching.”

Last month, protesters targeted the homes of two council members who supported reducing the police budget but wouldn’t commit to slashing it by 50 percent, the Seattle Times reported. The demonstrations allegedly included making noise outside one councilor’s home at night and leaving notes on his door warning, “Don’t be racist trash.”

In June, another group visited Mayor Jenny Durkan’s residence, which was tagged with spray paint, according to the Times. Durkan asked the council to probe Sawant for taking part in that protest but council president Lorena González declined. 

Meanwhile, Police Chief Carmen Best said her neighbors had to stop a “large group of aggressive protestors” from trespassing at her home on Saturday. One of the demonstrators, Nicole Gitaka, told King 5, a local news station: “All we were doing was walking and they met us with guns, I don’t know who the aggressor is at that point, but I don't think it’s us.”

This summer, Seattle police swept through an autonomous protest zone known as the Capitol Hill Organized Protest Area (CHOP) with blast balls and pepper spray, arresting at least two dozen people afte Durkan issued an executive order to clear the area.

Previously called the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone (CHAZ), the six-block stretch near downtown was occupied by demonstrators in the wake of Floyd’s death and Black Lives Matter protests. But the site also brought multiple shootings, including the fatal shooting of a 16-year-old boy, and injuries to both cops and protesters. One Tacoma man was charged with arson for torching the police department's East Precinct building during the CHOP protest.

Last week, the head of Seattle’s police union warned defunding cops would bring higher crime rates and make CHOP or CHAZ “look like child’s play.”

On Tuesday, Durkan and Best held a press conference to ask council members to hold off on deep cuts to the police budget until 2021.

Durkan said the city shouldn’t make “hasty decisions” when it comes to defunding the police department. “We should make right decisions,” Durkan told reporters. “That doesn’t mean slow; it just means thoughtful.”

“The chief and I, again, we are absolutely committed, committed to reimagining how policing works in the city, to having a better community-based response, to have a public health and harm reduction based response,” Durkan added. “But we also know that policing is complicated and that sometimes you do need a police officer to respond.”

For her part, Best said “there are some good approaches” in the council’s proposals and that “some of the ideas SPD already had and has raised before.”

“But what is problematic is these are approaches without any clarity on how they will become reality. What is the plan? “ Best asked. “The push from Council and some of our community is to do these large-scale changes in 2020 with no practical plan for community safety. And I believe wholeheartedly that is completely reckless.

“Council has directed me to lay off 70 or more officers basically overnight,” the chief added. “And I cannot do that in good faith knowing there are no systems in place to bridge the gap.”

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