In a budget season that seemed last to last forever in a year in which time has lost all meaning, I’m happy to inform you that today the Seattle City Council adopted a new 2021 budget. Further, Mayor Durkan has announced she does not intend to veto the budget this time around. The last few budget-related amendments were discussed this morning, and the budget and related legislation were all passed at this afternoon’s full council meeting. Live Twitter threads can be found here and here.
The bulk of this morning’s meetings consisted of heated debate on one last minute amendment proffered by CM Mosqueda. Based on the receipt of new data received from the SPD on Friday that their attrition was higher than expected in 2020 and might also be in 2021, the amendment sought to reclaim a further $2m of anticipated payroll savings via proviso to go toward participatory budgeting. The Mayor did not want this amendment passed, saying the SPD might be able to hire more than the anticipated 114 new hires and further that the SPD would need this money for overtime to potentially backfill patrol positions and for separation pay. There was concern this amendment might be seen as a hiring freeze, which it is not, or a fulfillment of the demand of #NoNewCops, which it also is not, but ultimately it was passed as being in keeping with previous budget actions, with only CM Pedersen voting against it.
The Council went on to pass the main budget bill with all CMs voting in favor except for CM Sawant’s protest vote against what she calls a harsh austerity budget. According to CM Sawant, this budget represents an 8.2% decrease in the police budget, not including the transfer of units outside the department. It represents about a 20% cut including those transfers. You can read more about the details in my previous post.
Neither extreme of the political spectrum will be pleased with this budget and how it shrinks the SPD. The Right will be upset because they want ever-increasing investments in the police force in order to perpetuate this country’s racist policing and incarceral system and to defund social investments in things like housing, transportation, and education. The Left thinks this budget falls far short of earlier promises to defund the SPD by 50% (or abolishing the police altogether) and was hoping to institute a hiring freeze at the very least.
Instead this budget represents a compromise that should mollify the more moderate among us. It acknowledges the racism inherent in policing and the criminal justice system and takes measured steps to begin addressing this through increased investment in community-led alternatives while giving these alternatives time to scale up and begin to take on some of the work now being done by police. It doesn’t drastically reduce the size of the force—which would result in widespread media hysteria, if nothing else—while suggesting ongoing work to ultimately right-size it.
The importance of this work is undeniable. Seattle is one of the only cities in the country still pursuing the project of reimagining the police at this scale (I believe the other city to check out is Austin, Texas). A 20% cut, while not the size that activists hoped for, is still significant. If the work does continue, Seattle could become a model for the nation of what divestment and reinvestment looks like. But opponents will be looking for any chance to place barriers in the way and declare the efforts to be a failure, thus nullifying the entire experiment.
In the months to come, it will be critical to remain informed about the Seattle City Council’s continued actions in this matter and to create a bulwark against the inevitable backsliding, which we’ve already seen this last month in CM Pedersen’s statements. The SPOG contract negotiation will inform what is possible, as will any legislation passed by the Washington State legislature in its upcoming session. A potential expanded role for Seattle’s parking enforcement officers could be negotiated, and a new 911 dispatch system will be stood up. The participatory budgeting process will direct the investment of millions of dollars into community-led alternatives to policing, while other investments into those alternatives will begin to be dispersed early next year.
If there is one thing this last five months have taught me, it is the importance of local awareness and action. We have the chance here in Seattle to lead a better way forward: to create increased equity and more safety for our BIPOC neighbors and to continue the work of decriminalizing poverty, divesting in racist policing, and reinvesting in community services that will lead to better outcomes for everybody. The decrease of 20% from the police department’s budget shows us concretely that our engagement with these issues does matter. I hope we can all take heart, dig in, and prepare to continue the work.
Until next time, friends.