The Case for a 2021 Hiring Freeze
The uprising in defense of Black lives this summer has forced a reckoning with the role of policing in Seattle. If we are truly reckoning with how to build healthy and safe communities, we must question whether hiring new police officers will help us reach that goal. The 2021 budget Mayor Durkan sent to Council includes funding for hiring 114 officers in 2021. The Seattle Police Department is forecasting 89 resignations/retirements in 2021. By including funding for 114 officers, the Mayor expects Council to sign off on a budget that funds both the replacements for the 89 officers who leave the force AND 25 additional officers on top of that. Instead of acquiescing to the Mayor’s proposal, Council should pull the $9 million from SPD’s 2021 budget (the equivalent of the hiring budget for those 114 new officers). This is the only move remotely in line with a veto-proof majority of Council pledging to defund SPD by at least 50% only a few months ago.
Why should Council pull the $9 million hiring budget from the budget and reinvest those funds in community solutions?
A hiring freeze is in line with a scale-up of community-designed and implemented responses to harm. A hiring freeze would halt the replacement of officers who will be leaving the department over the course of the coming year (not all at once). It would immediately inject an extra $9 million into building up community-based responses to harm. Added to the $10 million dollars already earmarked for this purpose, the $19 million would be a meaningful investment into scaling up community groups to address situations that have previously been under the purview of SPD. The scale-up of community solutions (which already exist, but have been under-funded) can and should coincide with the scale-down of SPD. The hiring freeze is a modest but necessary step in the scale-down.
An investment in new officers exceeds the $9 million budgeted this year. It includes the cost of training, recruitment and retention bonuses, equipment and uniforms, salaries for this year and beyond, health benefits, and eventually, a pension. Additionally, it includes the cost of required supervisors for police officers, and the costs of addressing any misconduct (settlements, legal fees, etc.) an officer may produce during their tenure. When considering a hiring freeze, we are also considering freezing long-term investments in a model of policing that has failed to produce true health and safety, particularly for Black communities.
Prior budgets have over-funded SPD past the number of officers they could hire. Council members resisting cutting the hiring budget may point to the vacant positions already being defunded and abrogated. While this is a step in the right direction, it can’t be the stopping point. What other city department has been funded for 150 positions over those it could fill? What SPD is receiving this year is a budget that matches their staffing – this should have always been the case. Meeting the challenge of this moment requires going beyond defunding already vacant positions – it means actively making moves to shrink the department by removing the hiring budget for the year.
Until this year, SPD has received nearly ¼ of the City’s General Fund. They have received more money than 25 other city departments combined, including the departments charged with housing, education, city planning and community development, labor standards, economic development, sustainability and the environment, and immigrants and refugee affairs. Including funding for 114 new police officers sends the wrong message at a time when Seattle is grappling with the outsized police budget and the harmful impact of policing, a public health crisis, and a massive looming recession. It is the opposite of commitments publicly made by Council members at the height of this summer’s uprising.
There is no justification for leaving money in the budget for 114 new officers, when we don’t even have a nurse in each of our public schools. There are so many urgent unmet needs in our city, and none of those needs can be met with 114 new police officers. They can start to be met with more school nurses, more counselors, more housing, more community health workers, etc.. Continuing to invest in hiring and training new police recruits at a time when we are finally taking on the task of rethinking what will create true health and safety for all Seattleites takes us in the wrong direction. The Council approved $3 million towards Black-led research this Fall to let us know what actually creates true community safety. Let’s listen to the results, and invest accordingly.
New police recruits can’t guarantee a change in SPD’s culture of violence and anti-Blackness, and don’t change the role of police. Some council members may be wary of a hiring freeze because of a desire to attract new recruits, particularly women and BIPOC, as older officers retire and “bad apples” are laid off. This presumes that the problems with policing can be addressed through more diversity in the ranks of sworn officers. However, a look at the challenges facing other police forces that more closely match the demographics of their populations (including those of Los Angeles, Chicago, and Baltimore) prove this to be a false assumption. The problem is not a lack of diversity in policing, the problem is structural racism inherent to policing.
Seattle is at a crossroads. Will we continue to invest in failed policing, or will we accept the challenge before us to invest in a new paradigm of health and safety for all? The Homeless Remembrance Project, who track deaths of our homeless neighbors in King County, report that thirteen homeless people died outside, in a public place or by violence, in the period of October 21st to November 9th alone. That brings the total to 119 deaths this year. Would 114 new police officers have stopped those deaths? Hiring new police officers wrongly presumes that they can fill the role of nurses, social workers, housing specialists, mental health workers, drug treatment providers, etc. We don’t need SPD to keep hiring to replace cops who leave the force. We need to follow the lead of community members who have said enough is enough, and fully invest in a new paradigm of health and safety for all.
Deaths of homeless neighbors in King County:
“Bad apples” are not the problem with the police (so new “diverse” officers aren’t the fix):
Police Diversity is Not the Answer:
SPD’s budget compared to other uses of the general fund: