Seattle leaders were busy last week. The City Council passed a budget rebalancing package that includes cuts to the Seattle Police Department. A day later, Police Chief Carmen Best confirmed she is retiring effective Sept. 2.
The budget cuts included a reduction in the chief's salary and that of her command staff and a plan to reduce the department by up to 100 officers through layoffs and attrition.
Best and her supporters have laid much of the blame for her departure at the council's feet, saying the council failed to consult the chief on these significant changes.
But officials say the work of "transforming" the city's public safety infrastructure will continue. Mayor Jenny Durkan told KNKX last week the next step is for her office and the city council to closely examine the current functions of the police department to determine how those functions could be handled differently.
"I'm really hoping that we can work together," Durkan said.
Council President Lorena Gonzalez echoed some of those sentiments in an interview with KNKX Morning Edition host Kirsten Kendrick. Listen to their conversation above or read the transcript below. Both have been edited for length and clarity.
Kirsten Kendrick, KNKX: When Carmen Best recently announced her retirement as chief, you and two of your colleagues on the council released a statement saying you were saddened by her departure, but that work to transform public safety in Seattle would continue. How does her departure affect that work?
Lorena Gonzalez, Seattle City Council President: I think for me, it's important for us to stay focused on what it means to restructure the Seattle Police Department. I had hoped sincerely that, after our 2020 rebalancing exercise for the budget, that Chief Best would be available and at the ready to work with us on what it is going to take to restructure and to reimagine the Seattle Police Department in a way that's consistent to the calls that we are hearing from community asking us to move beyond reform and move towards a transformation of community safety models that really are going to make all of us in Seattle feel safe.
KNKX: One of the points Chief Best made – she called the council's cuts to her salary and that of her command staff "punitive," saying she took them personally. I wanted to get your response to that.
Gonzalez: Yeah, I would say that when we are in the midst of a historical national, and some people might say global, civil rights movement, that we have to agree that everything is on the table. When we did our inquest into the Seattle Police Department budget, we learned that the executive team at the Seattle Police Department, their salaries were rather out of line in comparison to other executive teams at the city. And so it was a corrective action in terms of putting the pay back within the pre-approved pay band that applies to the chief of police, regardless of who is in that seat.
KNKX: Looking beyond policing to the budget shortfall overall, is the council considering cuts to any other department head salaries?
Gonzalez: I really appreciate that question because part of the debate on Monday (Aug. 10) when we were considering this budget cut that I just described to you, part of the debate was do we need to as a city council, in the context of this economic crisis and the need to continue to rebalance the budget, do we need to take a look at all executive level pay to make sure that we right-size those salaries? And I heard from many of my colleagues a very strong interest in looking at that exercise for the fall 2021 budget, which will begin in about seven weeks. I think there will be some conversations around executive pay levels as an attempt to make sure that we are putting everything on the table in a way that will mitigate against furloughs of public employees that are critical to providing essential city services to the people of Seattle.
KNKX: Looking ahead to next year's budget, what kind of proposals might the city see when it comes to policing and public safety?
Gonzalez: I think it's important for us to take a look at what functions we're asking the police department to currently do. We have, as a result of a failure to invest in mental health systems, behavioral health systems and other social social safety net systems, as a result of that, we have pushed much of that work on our armed law enforcement models. And I think that it's time for us to really dig into the weeds and to figure out how to separate those functions out of the police department and into civilian hands and into systems that already exist that just need more investment in order to meet the scale of the need.
KNKX: Any other ideas being bandied about as to how you can make those changes in the police department and maybe move some services elsewhere?
Gonzalez: Yeah, I mean, we've already started having conversations about what it means to move 911 out of the Seattle Police Department. That has been a big part of the conversation. I think there is complete agreement in terms of that transfer of 911 out of SPD between the council and the mayor. We're also talking about moving the Office of Emergency Management outside of the police department. (It) makes little sense to have emergency management response within the police department at this juncture.
I think the other aspect that I think is positive, that isn't just a take-away, is community service officers. We reinstituted that program a couple of years ago. It's now underway. These are unarmed SPD personnel that go out through a service lens to take things like police reports on package thefts, on other nonviolent, noncriminal offenses. We need to think about what it would look like to scale up a program like community safety officers to see if that could meet many of the needs that are nonviolent and noncriminal in nature that have really clogged up our 911 system and made it, frankly, quite difficult for law enforcement to focus on some of those priority one, most violent crimes in our city.
KNKX: Given all the challenges the city is facing right now and the strain that has been evident, what's the overall feeling, in your view, at City Hall right now?
Gonzalez: I think that we are faced with a significant amount of challenges. We, as democratically elected representatives, the city council and the mayor have an obligation to channel the frustration of our constituents and to understand those frustrations. And I think that it's fair to say that we are dealing with unprecedented issues right now: a global pandemic, an economic crisis, a racial reckoning across the nation. And that puts a lot of pressure on all of us to act. And I think that what I hope to be able to do at this point, now that we are beyond the rebalancing package exercise for the summer, is to really begin the process of having meaningful, across-the-board conversations as elected leaders to make sure that our constituents know that we are focusing on the work and not on each other's personalities or differences.
Now, that being said, I want to make really clear that elected leaders should engage in debate. And it's OK for us to disagree. And disagreeing doesn't mean that we are not civil. It means that we have, based on all the information we have, determined that perhaps there isn't a 100 percent alignment. And I think that's a healthy part of our democratic process, and (I) hope that our constituents see our spirited debates through that lens.