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City, business leaders call loss of nearly 200 Seattle Police Department officers a crisis

Nearly 200 police officers have left the department in a little over a year and response times to calls for help have increased.

SEATTLE — Seattle's Police Department is in a staffing crisis. That's according to the police chief, a deputy mayor, and a downtown business organization, who are all pleading with the council to avoid further reductions to the department.

"It's municipal malpractice, the way that our city council has addressed public safety over these last six months," Downtown Seattle Association President Jon Scholes said.

He points to a recent presentation by acting Seattle Police Chief Adrian Diaz, who suggested that 911 response times are growing, even for violent crime, after a reduction in nearly 200 officers in a little over a year. 

Deputy Mayor Tiffany Washington backed up the chief, during that same presentation.

"My older brother Michael spent most of his life in prison. I remember watching him being thrown down by the police and arrested on multiple occasions. This early introduction to police caused me to grow up with a negative image of who they are and how they treat people," she told the council. "Black people were enslaved for over 400 years and cannot be expected to get better in a year or two as there is a lot of repair needed.

"Reducing the police budget to invest in communities this year, will not result in immediate change. When I call the police for help as a Black woman, I have an expectation that someone will come to assist me in a reasonable amount of time. This is not our current reality in the city right now."

The council is reviewing a $5.4 million line item for a potential cut, saying that the money was originally approved for 2020 police overtime, with the option to cut the same amount this year.

"Now we want to have a conversation about whether and how to adjust the budget in 2021," said Councilmember and Public Safety Chair Lisa Herbold, who said she does not believe the officer departures are associated with 2020 budget cuts.  "I think that narrative suggests that the officers that have left the department, that the reduction of the number of officers is attributable to the budget cuts. The budget cuts did not result in police officers leaving the force." 

She said that the fire department has also seen declining numbers, which she attributed to the dual challenge of the pandemic response and the racial reckoning after the death of George Floyd.

However, Scholes of the Downtown Seattle Association was quick to point out that many police officers left before their positions were eliminated, in the midst of nationwide discussions over police reform.

Last year, several Seattle council members had suggested the department could be cut by 50%. Now many of those same council members, like Herbold, have now backed away from that idea because it "clearly is not achievable as it relates to the the conversations that were that we're in right now."

The council is scheduled to take up the issue again, at a committee hearing via Zoom, on Tuesday March 23.