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Debate over defunding police continues at Seattle City Hall

Police Chief Carmen Best acknowledged the public's concerns about issues around race and police brutality, but she also said cutting the budget in half is reckless.

SEATTLE — From the City Council to the streets of Seattle, the debate is heating up over how much funding the Seattle Police Department will receive.

Wednesday, the city's Select Budget Committee tackled the issue of defunding.

The public weighed in during the meeting with some supporting a 50% cut to the budget, citing police brutality as one of the reasons why. Others said a cut that big will jeopardize public safety.

Police Chief Carmen Best acknowledged the concerns raised about issues around race and police brutality, but she also said cutting the budget in half is reckless

As the budget battle continues, a majority of City Council has said they are in favor of cutting SPD’s budget in half.

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King County Equity Now Coalition's proposal suggests a 50% cut would come with a four-point plan. That plan includes replacing current 911 operations with a civilian-controlled system, scaling up community-led solutions, funding a community-created roadmap to life without policing, and investing in housing for all.

KING 5 asked Best what she thought about the plan.

“I think that every plan needs to have analysis, and the plan is untested theory," she said. "I don't think we want to put 750,000 residents in the city at risk for theory that is untested.”

SPD's budget this year was more than $400 million. If it was cut in half, Chief Best says around 700 officers would be laid off.

“I think it's reckless behavior to do that without having to plan something in place for how we're going to respond on the calls for service, how we're going to protect community members, and how we're going to move forward and public safety,” she said.

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Additionally, according to public safety civil service rules, layoffs would happen by seniority, potentially damaging the diversity of the police force. 

“Some of our most diverse recruiting and hiring has happened over the last five years,” Best said.

Mike Fields, executive director for Human Resources for the Seattle Police Department, said trying to get around seniority leads to other complications.

“There has been some discussion of race-based exception to the order of layoff which we've received legal advice would be illegal,” Field said. “As to the other exceptions such as misconduct-based out of order layoff, that would face serious legal and labor challenges.”

“My only concern as a police chief is to make sure that we have safety in the community,” Best said.

Best and Mayor Jenny Durkan have identified $76 million in cuts to the 2021 budget.

“Some of the functions that can be maintained outside of the police department, we would do that,” Best said. “That includes our 911 communications and parking enforcement and a few other units that we could possibly move to other realms and outside of the police department's budget.”

Fields added that if the budget was cut in half, the department would have to focus on high-priority 911 calls, and some specialized units might have to be eliminated.

Statement from a Mayor’s Office spokesperson: 

Last night, the City Council published its Issue Identification memos for the 2020 rebalanced budget. The City Budget Office and SPD have conducted an initial analysis to determine the fiscal, layoff, and labor implications of the issues identified by the Council. Based on CBO and SPD’s initial analysis, only Councilmember Sawant has identified a level of cuts to reach a 50 percent defund of the department in 2020. As Chief Best stated, cutting 50 percent of the budget will lead to significant layoffs and impacts to public safety, and as Council identifies cuts, the City and Council must be transparent about their impacts.

The Mayor and Chief outlined their initial actions for changes to SPD in 2021 budget, understanding that many of the changes will require the City to simultaneously expand community-led programs or current City programs like Health One. The Mayor hopes to work with the City Council and community members on the 2021 budget as well as continued transformation of SPD, and she is committed to partnering to make changes to the SPD budget and reinvest in community-based programs.

With 800,000 911 calls every year, reimagining community safety is incredibly complex, and many of the issues that community is rightly asking the City to address require scaling new resources. Mayor Durkan believes they are worth solving, and her and the Chief are ready to do the work.

The City Council is expected to vote on the budget on Aug 3.

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