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Seattle City Council votes to override Mayor Jenny Durkan’s vetoes of police and public-safety budget changes

UPDATED: Tue., Sept. 22, 2020

Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan addresses a news conference in Seattle on Sept. 2 about changes being made in the city’s police department.  (Associated Press)
Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan addresses a news conference in Seattle on Sept. 2 about changes being made in the city’s police department. (Associated Press)
By Daniel Beekman Seattle Times

The Seattle City Council voted Tuesday to override Mayor Jenny Durkan’s vetoes of council bills meant to shrink the police force and scale up community solutions this year. Council members chose to stick with the 2020 budget bills instead of a substitute proposal that the mayor had said she could accept.

The veto-override votes on the three bills were preceded by more than an hour of public comments, with most speakers urging council members to “hold the line” against the mayor and show they were listening to the Black Lives Matter movement. Several council members then sharply defended the bills as reasonable first steps toward revamping public safety in Seattle. Council members Alex Pedersen and Debora Juarez dissented on one of three veto overrides; the other two overrides were unanimous.

“Everyone deserves to feel safe … Countless videos of Black and Brown lives lost here in Seattle and across the country shows us that not everyone feels safe,” Council President M. Lorena González said, referring to people killed by police officers. “We need public safety that’s centered on harm reduction, not the status quo.”

She added, “When I look back in this moment of time, I want to be able to tell my daughter, who I’m currently holding in my arms, that I did the right thing and that I voted on the right side of history.”

Council member Tammy Morales read aloud the names of people killed by Seattle police in recent years. Council member Dan Strauss described the changes advanced by the council as “too important to stop and play political games.”

Council member Kshama Sawant credited “ferocious” pressure by the Black Lives Matter movement in recent days for Tuesday’s result, noting several colleagues kept constituents in suspense until the last minute.

Durkan and council members have clashed for months over how to rework a 2020 city budget ravaged by the COVID-19 crisis, and how to respond to the uprising for Black lives that erupted after Minneapolis police killed George Floyd on May 25.

Some council members, heeding calls from protesters and community coalitions, pressed to defund the Police Department and invest in approaches less likely to result in harm. The mayor, listening to business groups, the Seattle Police Officers Guild and residents skeptical of such changes, called for the council to slow down.

Tuesday’s decision at a special remote meeting was partly about how the city spends money the rest of this year. But the decision also was about who’s in the driver’s seat at City Hall, with another round of deliberations starting soon. Seattle’s 2021 budget could determine how the city handles public safety in the long term, and Durkan is scheduled to unveil her plan next week.

She came under fire this summer for the Police Department’s use of tear gas, blast balls and other heavy-handed crowd control tactics, and she’s been battling a recall attempt in court. Council member Sawant is meanwhile also facing a recall attempt, partly for letting protesters into City Hall during a pandemic.

Leading into Tuesday’s meeting, council members were taking heat from constituents on both sides. The Seattle chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America organized a Tuesday afternoon rally at a park near Council member Andrew Lewis’ Queen Anne apartment building, hoping an 11th-hour push would convince him to oppose Durkan. A group called Move Seattle Forward, associated with the Downtown Seattle Association, thanked supporters for sending 1,000 pro-veto emails to council members last week.

The budget bills passed by the council and vetoed by Durkan last month included provisions meant to reduce the police force by up to 100 officers through layoffs and attrition; cut the wages of police commanders; dismantle the Navigation Team that clears certain homeless encampments; borrow $14 million to fund community-based public safety programs; and use $3 million in emergency reserves to fund a community-led public safety research project.

Though the cuts were expected to immediately trim only about $3 million from the Police Department’s $400-plus million annual budget – nowhere close to the 50% that seven council members in July vowed to extract, council members described the trims as a “down payment” on more sweeping changes to come.

On Monday, González called Tuesday’s meeting to address the vetoes and said she would personally vote to override them. Anticipating some of her colleagues might side with the mayor, however, she unveiled a potential substitute. While the council allocates city funds, the mayor can choose to spend those funds or not, she noted.

González described the substitute proposal as a possible compromise negotiated with Durkan, while defunding proponents Decriminalize Seattle and King County Equity Now described it as anti-Black and a capitulation.

Under the substitute proposal disclosed Monday, there would have been no layoffs this year; the police commanders would have kept their wages; the Navigation Team would have remained intact; community-based public safety programs would have received $2.5, rather than $14 million; and the research project would have received $1 million this year, rather than $3 million.

The mayor and council already have agreed that certain functions, such as the city’s 911 call center and its parking enforcement unit, should be moved outside the Police Department.

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