Never a dull moment in Seattle politics

We’ve had a busy couple of days in Seattle politics, so let’s catch up on recent events, shall we? I’m afraid this is a long one!

Mayor Durkan announced she won’t be running for a second term next year. There’s been speculation for months that she might be offered a position in the Biden administration so we’ll see if that comes to pass. After making a big deal about how she was paying her own legal defense fees against a recall unlike CM Sawant, she is now asking for the City to pay her fees, an early signal of this announcement.

What does this mean for Seattle? We’re in for an interesting election season!

At Council Briefing yesterday, the CMs talked about their committee meetings and what they’re discussing this month. In addition to today’s Public Safety and HSD meeting (more about that in a minute), there was an education and governance committee meeting this afternoon to discuss new grassroots lobbying regulations. The interim director of HSD, Director Johnson, is stepping down, as is Randy Engstrom from the Office of Arts and Culture.

There is also a special meeting of the Housing and Finance Committee tomorrow at 1pm. Among other things (including new COVID relief for restaurants and restaurant workers), they’ll be speaking about additional SPD overtime expenses in 2020, and it has the potential to get a bit heated.

The Council also adopted the City of Seattle’s state legislative agenda for 2021.

Remember the lawsuit brought against the City by Black Lives Matter Seattle King County and the ACLU? Well, the judge is holding the city of Seattle in contempt for violating his crowd control injunction. He found four clear instances of the SPD violating this injunction between late August and September; three of these instances involved blast balls. He said he was also troubled by how many instances were inconclusive. The plaintiffs have until Friday to submit their proposal for sanctions and the City will have a week to respond. The City could also choose to appeal the ruling.

There was a Public Safety and HSD committee meeting this morning, with three items on the agenda: the semi-annual accountability report from the OPA, OIG, and CPC; discussion on legislation to give the OPA and OIG subpoena powers; and discussion about the possibility of creating a basic needs defense for misdemeanors. During public comment, 10 people spoke against this basic needs defense and 8 people spoke in favor of it; there were also a few comments on the police accountability system being broken.

I’ll limit my comments here about the OPA and OIG subpoena powers to saying that even were this legislation to pass, it would still need to be bargained with the police unions, so it would take awhile to be implemented. It is, however, a positive change in terms of increased accountability. There has been some speculation that city government is using this legislation to assume a tougher stance for the upcoming contract negotiations with SPOG.

The misdemeanor basic needs defense is receiving a lot of negative attention, which is somewhat baffling as it probably wouldn’t change much in terms of how things are currently being done. The current City Attorney already has a policy of not prosecuting necessity cases as a matter of principle. There is also a lot of misinformation about this proposal being spread.

This proposal does NOT decriminalize misdemeanors. What it does is create an affirmative defense to misdemeanors committed in order to fulfill basic needs (other examples of affirmative defenses are the common law defense of necessity and the “under duress” defense). An affirmative defense requires the defendant to admit to the crime and then present extenuating circumstances, in this case, circumstances of poverty, allowing the judge and jury to hear the defendants’ stories and factor them into their decisions.

A lot of the discussion today was highly technical in nature, reviewing various possibilities of what this legislation could look like. The King County’s Director of Public Defense and a representative from the City Attorney’s Office were both present to answer questions and present their departments’ views on various aspects of this issue. Both departments are generally in favor of this potential legislation but differ in the details of how they believe it should be written. More details can be found in my tweets above if you’re interested in the nitty gritty. This proposal will continue to be discussed in January.

There will be a special Public Safety and HSD committee meeting on Thursday, December 17 at 9:30am. Discussion of the basic needs defense will NOT be on the agenda, although CM Herbold didn’t say what would be discussed.

Kevin Schofield reported on the Black Brilliance Project last week and is concerned about some red flags he found. Because I think local journalism exists to provide scrutiny, I don’t object to this deep dive nor think it differs substantially from the deep dives Kevin routinely does. What he glosses over is that this research project is emphatically not business as usual for the City and seeks to do research in a different way, centering different populations, and by populations that are typically not paid to do this kind of work. As such, it is not surprising that this effort would not look the same as other past research projects, nor is it surprising that rules might be bent in the process. Kevin says:

But taking this kind of approach to surfacing embedded wisdom is high-risk: for the Council as it cuts corners and bends the rules; for KCEN as it pushes the edges of creativity at the expense of rigor; for BIPOC communities as they place their hopes on this effort to deliver solutions for them; and for the city as a whole: if the intent is to downsize SPD across the whole city, then the alternatives stood up in its place will also need to be city-wide.

I do agree this is a high-risk project, and I will go further and say it always has been. There has always been an enormous amount of pressure on this attempt to divest from policing and re-invest in community alternatives to public safety, working against significant resistance. Whatever the details of the Black Brilliance project, the risk was going to be there. That being said, KCEN’s preliminary research report will be delivered on December 21, so in less than two weeks we’ll have a much better idea of the details behind the project.

If anything interesting transpires at tomorrow’s special Finance meeting, I’ll be sending a (hopefully brief) update to keep you in the loop.

I hope you’re staying warm and dry on this rainy December evening!