SEATTLE — The Seattle City Council began going through details of the police budget Wednesday, looking for places to cut amid calls to defund police.
Budget Chair Teresa Mosqueda began what she calls an “inquest” into the department’s budget and suggests the city cut up to 50% of the Seattle Police Department’s funding.
“If we invest in greater community-oriented or public health-style responses then that is, I think, going to save lives, and it frees up our officers to be more focused on the issues they really signed up for,” Mosqueda told KIRO 7.
According to a city presentation, the SPD has a $409 million budget for 2020.
Eighty-two percent of the budget goes to salary, overtime and benefits for about 2,000 employees.
Calls to defund SPD have been prominent in the protests against police brutality and structural racism in the criminal justice system.
SPD’s response to protests, especially the use of tear gas, has also faced significant criticism from city council members, who also wanted to know how much money the department spends on crowd control.
Wednesday's council presentation showed the department spent more than $67,000 on demonstration equipment in 2020, about $9,800 on tear gas, pepper spray and chemical agents, about $2,300 on flash -bangs and about $19,000 on "other less-than-lethal weapons."
Mosqueda points to Camden, New Jersey, as an example of a successfully restructured police department.
"Part of what we know is when you invest in community-led policing, you see less crime," she said.
Mosqueda said she wants half of SPD’s current budget to go to what she calls “upstream” solutions to prevent poverty-based crime, and to social service workers who can better respond to many of the calls police now handle.
"Why is is that a uniformed police officer with a gun shows up for a mental health crisis?" Mosqueda said that's what community members keep asking.
In response to recent protests, Seattle University criminology professor Jacqueline Helfgott told KIRO 7, "There's a lot of important messaging there that we need to pay attention to, but defunding the police is not the answer."
Helfgott said Seattle has made major progress with what's called restorative justice.
"Many of the changes that are being put forth by defunding the police proponents are changes that many people in the criminal justice system have been working on for many years," Helfgott said.
After federal reforms, Seattle has a new accountability system, and police training in Washington now focuses on officers being guardians rather than warriors.
"If we throw away all the reforms that are in place, dismantle and rebuild, my concern is that we are going backward," Helfgott said.
Helfgott said surveys show Seattle citizens want more police officers, a call widely heard as recently as last winter after a shooting downtown.
SPD's LEAD program, which gets low-level offenders help instead of sending them to jail, is internationally acclaimed.
Asked if she would cut funding to the LEAD program, Mosqueda replied, “Absolutely not. The lead program is a great example of where we have seen police officers partners with social service workers and case managers.”