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Candidates who support police alternatives lead primaries in Washington cities

A man holds a sign that says "Community safety, not police domination" during a protest in Tacoma on June 5, 2020.
Parker Miles Blohm
A man holds a sign that says "Community safety, not police domination" during a protest in Tacoma on June 5, 2020.

Votes are still being counted in local primaries around Washington state – particularly municipal races – but in several cities, there’s one issue that many front-runners seem to be supporting: 911 alternatives to armed police response.

Currently the top two candidates in every Seattle City Council race, as well as leading candidates in Tacoma, Olympia, Bellingham and Spokane, support some form of sending unarmed civilians to respond to mental health crises, or other calls that aren’t violent crimes.

In Olympia, which was the second city in the nation to adopt a mental health first responder program, mayoral candidate Dontae Payne — who is currently on city council, and is the first Black man to serve on that body — said he wants to expand alternatives like that. He's currently got more than 65% of the primary vote.

These are just primaries, and tests for these candidates are still ahead in November. In Bellingham, Mayor Seth Fleetwood, who helped lead the creation of the city’s Alternative Response Team, is looking at a tough reelection bid. While he is the leading candidate, he only had 37% of the primary vote as of Friday. But the runner-up in that race, Kim Lund, told KNKX in an email that she also supports "alternative response and community paramedic programs."

"Progressives are honing in on a popular platform that is about more public safety, but through the right channels, and looking at things like traffic stops and asking voters to consider why those can't be done by parking enforcement," said Kamau Chege, executive director of the Washington Community Alliance, a progressive organization pushing to get more people of color in elected offices.

Chege said for those anticipating a backlash against the "Defund the Police" or other police reform movements, this might come as a surprise.

"If you thought that people were still interested in reforming policing in the state and in our cities … that, you know, folks with Black Lives Matter signs on their yards meant it, then you weren't all surprised," he said.

Many of the candidates who support policing alternatives — in Seattle, for instance — also support hiring more police officers.

In other areas, voters are likely to have more stark choices in November. In Tacoma City Council District 3 — a diverse area that includes the historically-Black but now-gentrifying Hilltop — the leading candidate is Jamika Scott. A police reform activist endorsed by the Tacoma Democratic Socialists of America, Scott is currently suing Tacoma Police for what she says was a wrongful arrest in 2021.

Close behind her in the race is criminal defense attorney Chris Van Vechten, who was endorsed by Tacoma Business Council and blames Tacoma's rising crime on a drop in jail bookings.

Races like that show that voters are dissatisfied with the status quo when it comes to crime and public safety, said Crystal Fincher, a political consultant who lives in South King County.

"I think voters just want the problem to be fixed," Fincher said. "Now, there are some people who prefer something different, moving more into the direction of increased criminalization and crackdowns... And then you have people who want to focus more on supportive services, on providing more housing, providing more infrastructure and support aside from or in addition to policing."

"And so I think we see candidates who represent a change, but that change is in different directions," Fincher said.

Corrected: August 7, 2023 at 12:00 PM PDT
A previous version of this story misidentified Chege's organization. Updates headline.
Scott Greenstone is a former KNKX reporter. His reporting focused on under-covered communities, and spotlighting the powerful people making decisions that affect all of us throughout Western Washington.