Spare Change

What Happened to Defunding the Seattle Police Department?

The conversation has shifted since protesters took to the streets in 2020.

By Benjamin Cassidy March 21, 2023 Published in the Summer 2023 issue of Seattle Met

Image: Doug Chayka

Amid all the chants, Travonna Thompson-Wiley searched for a voice. Someone who could guide her next steps.

The Seattle native had never considered herself an activist before the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd. But after the video, the one she and so many others couldn’t get through, she’d seen enough. Felt enough. On May 30, 2020, she streamed downtown with thousands of others to protest for Black lives.

Outside the Nordstrom corporate building where she once worked, Thompson-Wiley couldn’t find a leader. She followed the crowd to I-5, then up to Capitol Hill. She listened closely to stories of suffering and resilience from Black and Indigenous community members who huddled in the early days of CHOP.

Those conversations inspired Thompson-Wiley and others to form the Black Action Coalition. Group members started weekly marches. Then, when they joined daily demonstrations backed by more experienced activists like Nikkita Oliver, Thompson-Wiley heard a cacophony of outrage finally coalesce into a chorus of three demands: Free the protesters. Invest in the Black community. Defund the police.

But how much, exactly, should they ask for?

In concert with groups from Los Angeles to Minneapolis, local activists landed on a 50 percent reduction of the Seattle Police Department’s budget for the remainder of 2020 and 2021. The money could be reinvested in community-led solutions and “a road map to life without policing,” a proposal advocacy groups King County Equity Now and Decriminalize Seattle outlined to the city council on July 7, 2020. Seven of the nine politicians pledged their support.

But three years since protesters hatched a bold plan to reimagine public safety, Seattle hasn’t sniffed divestment of this magnitude. With a new administration in place, the city has quietly reversed course, raising questions about just how genuine, or widespread, calls for change in 2020 really were. And what their legacy will be.

SPD is receiving nearly $19 million more this year than in 2022. With crime and response times on the rise, the money will, in part, pay for hiring bonuses to bolster a depleted force. Over a two-and-half-year span, the department lost more than 400 trained and deployable officers for a variety of reasons, ranging from departmental squabbles to complaints about Seattle’s political climate.

The reimbursement fulfills one of mayor Bruce Harrell’s promises on the campaign trail. “Make no mistake about it: I’m not defunding the police,” Harrell said during a debate with M. Lorena González, part of the city council contingent who supported the 50 percent cut.

2020, actual: $402.3 million
2021, actual: $361.7 million
2022, adopted: $355.5 million
2023, adopted: $374.3 million
2024, endorsed: $384.9 million
Icon: EdwinPM / noun project

Harrell’s predecessor, Jenny Durkan, dismissed the feasibility of the council’s stance back then. “You can’t govern by Twitter or bumper sticker.” And the city’s legislative body “quickly discovered…that a 50 percent cut was not possible,” remembers council member Lisa Herbold, chair of the Public Safety and Human Services committee. A Covid-induced budget rebalancing shaved a paltry $3 million in the summer of 2020, and tweaks for 2021 ultimately amounted to just a 10 percent net cut—progress, but not what was promised.

Or what was necessarily popular. While a telephone survey in July 2020 showed 53 percent of likely Seattle voters backed a 50 percent cut, by October of that year, a separate Crosscut/Elway poll found just 20 percent did. Its respondents skewed older and whiter than the actual demographics of the city, but it also found a greater percentage of people of color wanted more police in neighborhoods than white city residents.

Focusing on a defunding number at all may have been part of the problem, Thompson-Wiley says. Especially such a large one. Initially she was a “little ticked off” when the city didn’t allocate more money for community members marginalized by gentrification and the war on drugs. But she kept listening to the activist voices more seasoned than hers. Defunding the police wasn’t just about dollars, she learned, a sentiment she would soon pass on to skeptics; it was also a broader mandate to reduce the power and size of the force.

Through that lens, she could see the steps forward.

Travonna Thompson-Wiley joined thousands of protesters who marched in 2020. Then she helped direct their next steps.

Angélica Cházaro couldn’t march during those early protests. With immunocompromised family members at home, she didn’t dare come within shouting distance of the masses as a pandemic raged. Instead, she made her presence felt from behind a computer screen.

The University of Washington law professor and Decriminalize Seattle organizer helps steer the Seattle Solidarity Budget, a coalition of progressive groups that moves appeals for change from streets to spreadsheets.

The collective came together after some of its advocates were pitted against one another. In the first budget following 2020’s Black Lives Matter protests, Durkan pushed for a $100 million investment in communities of color. But she wanted to fund the project with revenue from a new payroll tax earmarked for other progressive purposes.

Cházaro and peers balked. Investment couldn’t substitute for divestment. And activists shouldn’t have to draw from the same pot. Instead of competing for resources, they joined forces and asked, “What does make us safe?”

They helped secure nearly $30 million for participatory budgeting to address a broader slate of public needs: future housing, road safety, and climate change. The advocates clinched the removal of the civilian-run 911 call center from SPD’s purview in 2021, potentially laying the groundwork for fewer armed responses to emergencies. And they requested the transfer of civilian parking officers to the Department of Transportation, the other major cut to the police budget.

2019: 1,281
2020: 1,094
2021: 958
2022: 954
Icon: EdwinPM / noun project

That one served as a learning experience. The move to SDOT contributed to a debacle (or a godsend, depending on your perspective), as the city had to cancel or refund more than 200,000 parking tickets from a seven-month period when its officers lacked the authority to write them. Now those officers have returned to SPD.

The parking enforcement fiasco reaffirmed that an administration’s implementation of changes is almost as important as the policies themselves. With Harrell pushing for the recruitment and retention of hundreds of more officers over the next several years, Cházaro knows the Solidarity Budget is at odds with his vision—though the coalition did manage to defund 80 unfilled, or “ghost cop,” positions recently.

Several allies from the council who helped push for trims in the months after protests are also gone or soon leaving office. But their support didn’t come out of nowhere. “We knew the only reason we had this opening was because there was still so much pressure on the streets,” says Cházaro.

Thompson-Wiley kept marching into the spring of 2021. Then, as she expected, things “died down.” Keeping the energy up was labor-intensive. She admired the work of Cházaro and Oliver, who later left for Detroit after losing a city council race to Sara Nelson, a moderate who’s pushed more police hiring bonuses.

Oliver, the interim executive director of Creative Justice, where Thompson-Wiley is now a community organizer, told her that they’d shifted the conversation. Though a 50 percent defund had fallen through, police abolition was now ingrained in local political conversations. A study with UW ties showed antiracist language from Black Lives Matter protests persisted on social media and in news stories long after marches dispersed. And Herbold says that community-based alternatives to police responses are now part of the dialogue to support other officers, not just the safety of those in crisis. When a majority of the council, including Herbold, initially backed halving the police budget, it “was not so much about whether or not the goal was realistic; it was about recognizing that you have to reach in order to even make a small change.”

Still, Thompson-Wiley wonders if some of the city council’s promises to defund the police were really just pleas to get them off the streets.

If so, at least she knows now where to negotiate.

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