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Chief’s Letter to City Council in Response to Decriminalize Seattle/King County Equity Now Proposals

The Chief sent this letter to City Council yesterday regarding Decriminalize Seattle/King County Equity Now Proposals:

July 21, 2020   

Lorena González, President, Seattle City Council and Lisa Herbold, Public Safety Chair, Seattle City Council

City Hall

600 Fourth Ave, 2nd Floor

Seattle, WA 98104

Re: Decriminalize Seattle/King County Equity Now Proposals

Dear President González, Chairwoman Herbold, and Seattle City Council Members:  

In the spirit of working collaboratively toward a new vision of community safety in this city, I wanted to take this opportunity to provide the police department’s perspective on the proposals currently in front of council.  Seven City Councilmembers committed to cutting 50% of the SPD budget – some of you have later clarified that this is 50% of SPD’s budget from August 2020 – December 2020, which would require SPD to cut $85 million and require a simply irresponsible number of layoffs.  I understand Councilmember Sawant has detailed her reductions, which would require reductions of 681 of 755 members of patrol.   

As you and the other Councilmembers are quickly considering significant budget actions, I cannot stress strongly enough how critical it is that you include SPD in the discussions in order to understand the foreseeable impacts and repercussions of any proposed cuts from Council or the Decriminalize Seattle/King County Equity Now proposals. As you are becoming more aware, any action in 2020 will potentially have significant implementation, labor, legal, or public safety implications. 

I have stated, clearly and repeatedly, that SPD stands ready to engage in a community-lead re-envisioning of community safety. SPD has a robust history of seeking community guidance – formally and informally – and will never shy away from authentic engagement with its varied and diverse communities.  I also fully understand, and support, significant investment of funds into community-based safety resources – investments that SPD has long been on record as supporting. I am gravely concerned, however, that by creating a false dichotomy between funding police services and investing in the community – where investments in services upstream of police intervention necessarily come at the expense of depleting police resources – Council is omitting from its analysis the decades of experience that so many in SPD have. This department has demonstrated, time and again in the past almost ten years, its ability to change how it operates, to be more transparent, to engage the nation’s experts, and to listen to community. 

It also is important to acknowledge that many of these recommendations intersect directly with the requirements and work of the federal Consent Decree – reforms that were, as the Consent Decree itself notes, guided by substantial community involvement. It is concerning to me that so many who just weeks ago urged the federal court to stay involved now question the reforms that were enacted, but the court still retains jurisdiction and neither through legislation nor budget action can we cease to abide by the commitments we all have made.  While this letter will be followed by a more detailed analysis of SPD training, policies, and practices that were guided by the Consent Decree, I do want to make sure I am on record, now, as at least flagging these issues for preliminary awareness.

Lack of awareness of these issues is not an indication of a need for more transparency; rather, it is a clear indication of not doing the work that should be done before making these sorts of wide-ranging recommendations. The federal settlement agreement is available online for all to read. The SPD policy manual is available online for all to read. SPD data are available online – in dashboard and raw form – for all to review and use. 

Apart from the specific recommendations, I also must point out that as a department we believe in science. There is a plethora of evidence that effective, evidence-based policing prevents crime. I do not know what the advocates were pointing to when they stated to council, they have evidence that policing doesn’t prevent crime, but there are countless, peer-reviewed articles that confirm the exact opposite. 

Altogether, I am concerned by the clear disconnect many of these recommendations have from reality. If we are to do the hard work ahead of us, we cannot argue about facts. If we are going to successfully meet the needs of our entire community, we must, together, create a plan, grounded in theory, guided by evidence, and governed by equity. With a plan in place, we can then, as a City, determine how to best fund and implement that plan. This will not happen overnight. We will have to “bridge the gap” between the realities of today and the vision of tomorrow. I hope the guidance provided below, in response to each recommendation, is part of the conversation. 

Decriminalize Seattle/King County Equity Now Recommendations & SPD Responses

  • Freeze hiring. Any planned hiring, including for individuals in the training pipeline, should be cancelled. 
    • Earlier this year, SPD met its hiring goals for 2020. The Mayor and SPD have frozen additional hiring through 2021 until further workforce and staffing analysis can be completed.  
    • City Councilmembers overwhelmingly supported SPD’s new hiring and recruitments that have led to historic diversity in the department. However, SPD has serious concerns about removing recruits and individuals who are currently training with SPD as it could impact public safety. It should be noted, that of those 51 individuals “in the pipeline” and hired in 2020 before the hiring freeze was initiated, 37% are individuals of color. 
    • Consent Decree – The City is required to provide SPD with adequate numbers of qualified field/first-line supervisors. Significant cuts, direct or through attrition, will jeopardize the department’s ability to meet this requirement. 
    • The de-escalation and use of force principles developed during the Consent Decree are heavily based on evidence that reducing solo-officer dispatches reduces use of force incidents. Stretching SPD staffing resources would completely go against this research and potentially lead to increases in uses of force. SPD has shown, in the federal monitor’s cited 60% reduction of serious uses of force, that these principles work. SPD uses any level of force in less than one quarter of 1 percent of all events, with the vast majority of that force categorized as the lowest level, Type I. 
  • Eliminate funds for recruitment and retention, including bonuses for new hires.
    • Consent Decree – As noted above, SPD must have adequate staffing to ensure sufficient and consistent supervision. Significant reductions in staffing through direct action or attrition will jeopardize compliance. 
    • The Executive and SPD have ended all recruitment and retention expenditures and allowed the hiring bonus program to lapse in June 2020, as hiring bonuses were no longer necessary to attract the best applicants. While the initiative was stopped, the funding currently supports 2.75 FTE that have been redirected to the City’s response on COVID-19 and other projects. 
    • Considering the City has a longstanding commitment to fair wages, the department intends to honor the contracts entered into under the hiring incentive program – it would be unconscionable to break these contracts. As previously noted, City Council overwhelmingly supported creating and expanding hiring bonuses. 
  • Remove the Office of Collaborative Policing, including Navigation Team. While some programs of this office, along with administrative infrastructure, should be eliminated altogether, others could be moved to a civilian-controlled agency. Eliminate: Navigation Team, Community Outreach Administration
    • After community input, I created the Collaborative Policing Bureau, which is led by Chief Adrian Diaz. We reorganized the Department to form a Collaborative Policing Bureau and focus our civilian and sworn officers on education, mentorship, and, perhaps most importantly, youth safety and intervention. The Bureau includes CSOs, civilian contracted Mental Health Professionals, and the sworn Crisis Intervention Team. 
    • In 2020, SPD expanded, and Council approved, the number of contract, civilian, MHPs who advise and respond to crisis incidents throughout the City. SPD advises against cutting the civilian mental health professionals. 
    • Many of the community’s favorite outreach programs – Detective Cookie’s Chess Club, The IF Project, Seattle Police Athletics League, Safe Place — would no longer be possible with the elimination of this unit, coupled with staffing reductions and the elimination of overtime. 
    • Fiscal Impact from Aug – Dec 2020: Cutting the entire bureau would lead to approximately a reduction of 1.3% of SPD’s budget. Understanding a blunt cut to the bureau doesn’t account for expenses that can’t be reduced mid-year or instantly including benefits, equipment, and supplies. 
    • Consent Decree – the settlement agreement specifically requires a partnership between the SPD, its officers, community members, and public officials.
    • The Navigation Team is based in the Human Services Department. The SPD officers and sergeants assigned to the City’s Navigation Team are supervised in the Collaborative Policing Bureau. 
  • Transfer out of SPD control: Crisis Intervention Response, Community Service Officers
    • In addition to King County’s 24/7 Crisis Line, SPD currently responds to over 10,000 crisis calls a year. The Crisis Intervention Team are sworn officers that can’t be transferred. 
    • Consent Decree –The settlement agreement specifically requires that SPD maintain sufficient, trained, officers on all shifts to respond to incidents or calls involving individuals known or suspected to have a mental illness, substance abuse, or behavioral crisis need.
    • Under the Revised Code of Washington, only sworn peace officers can initiate an Involuntary Treatment order in the field.
    • Sworn crisis officers are necessary to support the Extreme Risk Protection Order program. To date, this unit has seized over 150 guns from individuals at risk of hurting themselves or others.
    • Chief Best and Mayor Durkan, with Council approval, have relaunched the Community Service Officer program 
  • Eliminate spending on new equipment
    • While it could lead to relatively minor savings, there are multiple instances where occupational safety requirements, legal considerations, and other personnel requirements mandate the provision of sufficient equipment in good, working order. 
    • Defective or out-of-date equipment places officers and others at risk.
  • Eliminate Data-Driven Policing
    • Consent Decree – The on-going analysis of data on officer actions, with accompanying public reports, by SPD, is directly required by the settlement agreement. 
    • It is unclear what this means, but if the suggestion is to cease employing civilian analysts who both respond to countless requests for data and analyses, as well as ensure the department is measuring what it is doing – and its impacts, this would go against all best practices in policing and in modern organizational management. This team has been the driving force behind sharing data in public dashboards, datasets, and outside researcher engagement. 
  • Eliminate spending on North Precinct Capital Project
    • The Executive and SPD have cancelled this work. 
  • Eliminate Professional Services – Photo Enforcement, Sworn Hiring in HR, Recruitment and Retention, Community Outreach, Implicit Bias Training, Communications
    • Consent Decree — Implicit Bias Training is specifically required under the settlement agreement. 
    • Sworn Hiring in HR – The SPD must conduct the background investigation of all individuals conditionally offered employment as outlined in the RCW.
    • Photo Enforcement – This funding pays for the City’s vendor contract for the Red Light Camera Enforcement Program. Elimination of this program would have revenue impacts. 
    • Recruitment and Retention – SPD will need to ensure, as outlined above under staffing requirements, sufficient staffing, and cannot fully eliminate this function moving forward. 
    • Community Outreach – the issues with eliminating the funding and overtime for this work are previously outlined in the discussion of the Collaborative Policing Bureau.
    • Communications – This funding supports the contract for translation services for calls received by the 911 Communications Center. 
  • Cut SPD’s spending on Homeland Security (a misnamed unit that is mostly assigned to large events like Bumbershoot and sporting events)
    • It should be clearly stated that SPD’s Homeland Security Bureau in no way relates to the federal agency of the same name. It should have its role clarified with a more appropriate title. This unit coordinates security at all major events in the city, and cutting it would lead to issues staffing these events. The City’s general fund is reimbursed $5.7M a year in these event costs as revenue. Any major event that requires overriding traffic signals must be done by sworn officers in accordance with RCW. 
  • Eliminate SWAT Team funding
    • The City of Seattle is designated as an Urban Areas Security Initiative (UASI) Level 2 city and has the recommended SWAT staffing for this designation. 
    • The SWAT Team primarily responds to barricaded subjects, active shooter incidents, dignitary protection, hostage rescue, and high-risk warrant services. Eliminating this unit would not eliminate the need for it and would result in lesser-trained and equipped officers having to respond to these events, increasing the risk to everyone involved. Only sworn law enforcement officers can serve warrants. Of note, SWAT is modeled after best practices that were developed in part upon recommendations promulgated following the stabbing death of a King County Deputy and subsequent stand-off in the 1980s.  
  • End contracts with private firms that defend SPD and the City against police misconduct lawsuits
    • This would not result in SPD budget savings. Just as outside counsel is often appointed for other city employees, including Council at large or council members individually, all outside counsel use for any City business are paid for through the Judgement Claims Fund. Outside counsel are obtained when the City Attorney’s Office lacks capacity or a specific expertise. With the exception of punitive damages, which, to SPD’s knowledge, have never been part of a judgment against the City relating to a police action case, the he City is required to defend and indemnify all employees for acts or omissions within the scope of their duties.
  • Eliminate SPD’s travel and training budget
    • The Mayor and SPD included a $596,000 cut to SPD’s travel and training budget in the 2020 rebalancing proposal. This funding left is expected to be used for travel and required training and certifications.   
    • Consent Decree – The settlement agreement specifically outlines requirements for annual training for all officers across many areas. This would be in direct conflict. 
    • SPD is responsible, as an employer, to ensure its workforce is appropriately trained to do the job they are required to do. Not doing so would significantly open the City up to lawsuits both from employees and any individuals who suffered any injury due to inadequate training. 
    • Executive Leadership Training:  Good governance recognizes the importance of continuing education in executive leadership, staying abreast of best practices, and learning from other organizations and academic partners who have dedicated their careers to advancing the social science of policing.  Across the board, SPD’s command staff – half of which comprises civilians with advanced degrees of JDs, Ph.D.s, and Masters of Public Administration, and half of which comprises sworn personnel with decades of experience, engagement, and continuing education – has dedicated itself, and in many instances, their own time and money, to engaging at the national level to bringing SPD to the leading edge of police reform.
  • End overtime pay, including for Emphasis Patrols
    • The Mayor and SPD have already proposed reductions to SPD’s overtime in 2020 in the amount of $8.6M. As of July 7, 2020, SPD expended $21,921,109 on overtime, or 104 percent of its total overtime budget. There is no budget remaining.
    • Overtime pay is a bargained right of many employees. There are countless scenarios – be it completing required investigative paperwork or responding to a large-scale emergency — where it is not possible to avoid overtime hours and they must be compensated. 
    • Overtime is frequently used to ensure adequate staffing when unexpected absences lead to unsafe staffing levels. Overtime also is the only method at current staffing levels to ensure there are sufficient instructors to provide state and court-mandated training. 
  • Reduce patrol staffing, with corresponding reduction in administrative staffing
    • Emergency response services are the core of the City’s police powers and its chartered responsibility to establish social order, protect life and health of persons, and to safeguard individuals in their enjoyment of private and social life and use of their property. As I previously have noted, if Council wants to cut patrol, it will lead to significant layoffs, closure of precincts, including the Southwest Precinct, and slower response times. 
  • Transfer 911 dispatch out of Seattle Police Department to civilian control
    • The Executive and Chief of Police have proposed this move. The personnel in the Communications center who receive and dispatch emergency calls are all civilian employees, as are frontline supervisors. Police officers do not receive or dispatch calls for service. This proposal will likely need to be bargained and cannot be fully implemented until late 2020/early 2021.
  • Transfer traffic/parking enforcement out of SPD control
    • The Executive and Chief of Police have proposed the move of PEOs. Per the union, this proposal will need to be bargained and cannot be fully implemented until bargained.
  • Transfer Office of Police Accountability out of SPD control
    • The Executive and Chief of Police have proposed this move for 2021, and the Mayor and Chief have committed to continued conversations with OPA to ensure any labor issues are addressed.
  • Reduce administrative costs in line with the above cuts, including corresponding cuts to the office of the Chief of Police, Leadership and Administration, and Administrative Operations.
    • Consent Decree – the settlement agreement speaks specifically to the requirements on administrative positions to oversee the use and review of uses of force. This is in direct conflict with the requirements. 
    • Many administrative positions support local, state, and federal reporting requirements.
    • It is well-established that the Chief of Police is responsible for the administration of the Police Department and is the City’s official policymaker for law enforcement. 

As I have said countless times during the current turmoil, the Seattle Police Department stands ready to engage the important conversations and work to produce real, lasting change in community safety. That change, however, must be met with a plan. While again, I will follow this letter with one that lays out specific legal and practical issues we see, I hope these details clarify the risks inherent in undermining the Consent Decree, best practices, and labor agreements, without thought-out proposals informed by experience and research. 


Carmen Best

Chief of Police

Seattle Police Department


Tammy Morales, Councilmember, District 2

Kshama Sawant, Councilmember, District 3

Alex Pedersen, Councilmember, District 4

Debora Juarez, Councilmember, District 5

Dan Strauss, Councilmember, District 6

Andrew Lewis, Councilmember, District 7

Teresa Mosqueda, Councilmember, District 8, At-Large