Defund SPD sign

Defunding the Seattle Police Department has been central to Black Lives Matter-inspired protests in Seattle.

On Monday, Jenny Durkan announced a plan to defund the Seattle Police Department in 2021—kind of. Seattle’s mayor did pledge to slash a little under 20 percent of SPD’s budget. The city’s 911 call center, parking enforcement division, Office of Emergency Management, and Office of Police Accountability will all move out of the department, a $56 million shift. The city will not expand the police force or fill 40 civilian staff positions, and its special events overtime payments will be cut significantly, accounting for another $20 million.

Still, most of the $76 million culling is “budget-neutral”—it merely repositions line items on the city’s general fund spreadsheet, preventing that money from landing elsewhere. It also falls well short of the 50 percent reduction sought by many Black Lives Matter protesters and the majority of the city council.

This calculation conflict isn't unique to Seattle. Since the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, people across the country have taken magnifying glasses, or browser zooms, to their city’s budget lines, specifically those related to local law enforcement. In Seattle that attention has manifested itself during the protests following Floyd’s death. Via chants and Sharpie on cardboard cutouts, demonstrators have repeatedly called for the city to defund the Seattle Police Department by at least 50 percent. Last Wednesday, advocates presented some slides to the council’s budget committee that were persuasive enough to pave the way for the most significant police reform since Black Lives Matter-inspired protests began here in late spring: Enough council members (seven) now support the proposed 50 percent defunding to override a potential mayoral veto.

The presentation backed by two coalitions—Decriminalize Seattle and King County Equity Now—called for a civilian-controlled 911 system, community-led safety solutions, housing investments, and a road map to “life without policing.” Cuts to patrol and administrative staffing; the department’s recruitment, training and PR budgets; and Homeland Security spending would spur that community reinvestment. Angélica Cházaro of Decriminalize Seattle said that the city needs to “move away from armed responses to social problems.” Council member Dan Strauss deemed the concept a potential “quick win,” and others expressed similar sentiments. 

Durkan wasn’t pleased. During her Monday presser, she rebuked the council for lacking a plan to achieve such a significant cut while ensuring the city remains safe. Restructuring doesn’t always lead to more money for community reinvestment, she added, and the council’s positions felt “arbitrary.” “You can’t govern by Twitter or bumper sticker,” she said.

She didn’t mention PowerPoint. But those slides didn’t offer specific calculations, and city council members haven’t come forward with a clear path to the 50 percent number either. Not yet, anyway; the council is still weeks away from voting on the matter.

Police chief Carmen Best offered a preview Monday, saying a 50 percent cut would force her to fire officers. “It is reckless,” Best said.

Others view it as justice. Either way, all will need calculators.