Feb 18, 2021
Today’s show dives into the details of policing, with guest David Kroman from Crosscut joining Crystal to go over alternatives to armed police response, what other cities have tried, and what metrics we use to measure policing. Additionally, they cover what the new Seattle mayor and the city council can actually do in the face of Seattle Police Officer’s Guild power.
As always, a full text transcript of the show is available below and at officialhacksandwonks.com.
Listen to the This Changes Everything podcast, hosted by Sara Bernard, featuring David Kroman here: https://thischanges.podbean.com/. Specifically check out this episode about the political reality of defunding the police: https://thischanges.podbean.com/.
Learn about the challenges to fundamentally changing Seattle policing here: https://crosscut.com/news/2021/02/coalition-building-could-be-harder-ever-race-seattle-mayor.
Learn about Eugene, Oregon’s alternatives to policing here: https://crosscut.com/podcast/changes-everything/2/4/podcast-oregon-citys-decades-old-alternative-police
Read about barriers to police accountability here: https://www.aclu-wa.org/story/barriers-police-accountability-role-collective-bargaining-agreements-and-private-arbitration
Crystal Fincher: [00:00:00] Welcome to Hacks and Wonks. I'm your host, Crystal Fincher. On this show, we talk to political hacks and policy wonks to gather insight into local politics and policy through the lens of those doing the work and provide behind-the-scenes perspectives on politics in our state. Full transcripts and resources referenced in the show are always available at officialhacksandwonks.com and in our episode notes.
Well today, we are pleased to be welcoming David Kroman who is a Crosscut Reporter covering Seattle politics and policy. Thank you so much for joining us.
David Kroman: [00:00:59] Hi Crystal, thanks for having me.
Crystal Fincher: [00:01:01] Well we are really excited to talk to you, because we've been paying attention to what's been happening with the Seattle Police Department - different developments. And you have been covering all facets of policy and events with the Seattle Police Department - and have been doing a wonderful job. So we thought we wanted to have you in to just give us an overview, to start, on where things stand with the SPD right now - after the council voted last year to reduce funding for the SPD, invest in some community alternatives. How is that proceeding right now and what's going on?
David Kroman: [00:01:43] I would say that it's sort of in a holding pattern right now would be the best way I can describe it. I mean, there was obviously the flurry of activity in the summer and then to a certain extent in the fall. We saw a lot of officers leave the force and not be replaced, so there was this reduction. And so it was this frantic moment - but now it feels more like we're in this phase where the City Council is still charting its path forward for the year. Which includes working with community groups, figuring out how they're going to be working with those community groups, which community groups.
And then questions going forward about how they want to address the size of the police force, whether they want to continue letting officers leave and not be replaced, or whether they want to wait until they have more programs in place before they allow that to happen. I think it's this, maybe eye of the storm you could say - had a lot of activity towards the end of last year and I'm sure we will have a lot of activity in the coming year. But I think for right now it feels a little quiet as people prepare themselves for that.
Crystal Fincher: [00:03:02] It does feel a little quiet and so on the issue of staffing - are staffing levels at where they're going to be for at least the next year? Is there any plan to reduce any more or where does that stand?
David Kroman: [00:03:16] I think a lot of that actually, it probably depends on the cops themselves. I mean the thing is, I mean - the City Council expressed their desire to reduce the size of the police force but the way it reduced - they never actually had to do that. I mean, the cops left on their own and then because of the hiring freezes that were in place because of COVID-19, they just didn't get replaced. So that achieved the City Council's goal for them but it also means that maybe they didn't have quite as much control over that situation. And so I think it remains to be seen what the staffing level looks like, because we'll see how many cops decide to leave. We'll see what the city does around hiring freezes and its budget with COVID-19. And so the staffing - I think could do anything from actually - grow this year, if they decide that they want to replace people who are leaving, to reduce fairly dramatically, if they don't. And I don't know that we have a great read on how that's going to play out just yet.
Crystal Fincher: [00:04:25] There was conversation I know from Councilmember Morales questioning how police are - how, I guess, the funding formula is provided and them using the amount of calls coming in to 911 as the basis for how many police they need to have on patrol. And questioning, well, should we be looking at that as all police calls or should we be limiting that to calls that require an armed emergency response? And has that conversation gotten anywhere, is that policy or the ability to change that on the docket at all?
David Kroman: [00:05:05] Yeah, I think that's on the docket and that's also this larger debate around - you get at this point that there are certain metrics by which police departments like to measure their stats - make their arguments for greater staffing. One is comparing it to cities with similar populations, another is 911 response times, that sort of thing. But there's a lot of question as you get at around whether or not those are the best ways to actually measure that. And maybe the better way of thinking about this is priorities - what does or does not need to be responded to. There's not a ton of disagreement that dangerous, violent crime could use a police response, but there is a lot of disagreement around exactly how often what the police department are responding to actually falls under that category.
So it goes into this damn lies and statistics saying, People can crunch the numbers in different ways that look differently and serve different arguments. So I think going forward though, the thing that we will probably hear the most about is crisis calls and how cops are responding to people in crisis. In part because there are concrete models that exist already for substituting police response to those calls with crisis calls. I think it'll be less about numbers and response times and more about priorities and what should or should not the police department would be responding to.
Crystal Fincher: [00:06:48] Well, you mentioned those concrete models that were already in place and a lot of people are wondering - what are these community alternatives? What are the models that are alternatives to an armed police officer response?
David Kroman: [00:07:06] I mentioned crisis calls and a lot of my coverage have focused on crisis calls, I think in part, because a) it seems to be the area where there's the broadest agreement between politicians and even people in law enforcement - that this is a thing that police officers maybe should be doing fewer of and want to be doing fewer of. And b) it's also an area where there are places like, in Eugene, Oregon - CAHOOTS, or Denver - their STAR program. And I think even up in Snohomish County there might be a program, or at least a pilot program, in which they have really made a concerted effort to not send police to a lot of these calls and it seems to be working. In Eugene, again, a much smaller city than Seattle. So it's a little simplistic but something like 20% of their total call volume now goes to these people who are not actually police officers. And so - that I think is the most concrete area, because there are these proven programs or they've been tested.
Some of the trickier stuff, I think, is about community safety and how you change that because that isn't necessarily always about people in crisis or people dealing with substance use. I mean, that's the broader question around when police show up, is it actually making communities safer? A lot of people are arguing, no. That's the area where I think to have these community level programs, or almost community watch groups - that's really new territory that would be genuinely innovative and also in some ways trickier because they don't really have these concrete models that they can follow. There's some talk around it - Community Passageways talking about having rapid response teams that can be ready to respond to even incidents of domestic violence or things like that. So I think those are in the earlier stages because they would be truly new and innovative programs, whereas crisis calls and substance use - they can pluck these programs from other places.
Crystal Fincher: [00:09:30] So have any of these been funded or where is implementation standing in Seattle?
David Kroman: [00:09:38] Well, there's money - we know that. I mean, the mayor early on promised a $100 million dollars, the Council has increased that amount a bit. And so the money is out there - the question is how it gets allocated and to whom? We've seen the effort to figure out where this money should go splintered into a few different pots. There's the mayor's pot, which is this taskforce. The Council itself has dedicated - I think it was $18 million or something to start looking into alternatives to crisis response, so there's real money there. And then on the community safety level, there's this other $30 million that will theoretically be budgeted out through a "participatory budgeting program" which is basically a highly democratic approach to spending money. That is still in its really early stages and just this last week, there was some hiccups around the organizations that were involved with that and some tension there. But at least in theory, that's what the plan is to get this money out the door - but we're not there yet. The money is not really flowing yet in any super meaningful way.
Crystal Fincher: [00:10:59] Where a lot of the conversation is centering right now is on the Seattle Police Officers Guild contract - their collective bargaining agreement and how much control that actually has over the issue of police reform, what's possible with officer discipline. Why is it so important and so consequential when it comes to officer discipline?
David Kroman: [00:11:24] Because police union contracts are really unique in how much say they have over accountability measures and discipline. We had a pretty good example of just how powerful - in 2017, the City Council passed a bunch of new accountability processes for police officers that - no one at the time was really even arguing these were revolutionary ideas. They were just strengthening the pre-existing systems that they had, but they never really even got the chance to go into place because even the changes that were made in that 2017 legislation were - a lot of them were weakened or rolled back in a 2018 contract with the Seattle Police Officers Guild. Which I think just goes to show the power that these contracts have, especially at the state level. They're just given a ton of authority - basically meant that the City Council's efforts to close off friendly appeals processes was rolled back, their efforts to insert more civilian oversight into the systems were rolled back.
So it was this fairly stark example of just how powerful these contracts can be. So going forward, when talking about accountability measures, getting language into a contract that guarantees that when there's discipline it will stick. And that the discipline that does exist is done independently and not with influence through friends of the officers, becomes really, really paramount. Not - setting aside the question of money, which is obviously a big part of contracts too, just these police officer contracts have a ton of power when it comes to how officers are or are not held accountable.
Crystal Fincher: [00:13:16] Does it look likely that in this contract negotiation they will be able to negotiate that out? And what is the path forward if the police union says, "Absolutely not." And the City says, "Well, we're not moving forward without it." What happens then?
David Kroman: [00:13:31] We've seen just how politically far apart the City is from the leadership of the Police Officers Guild. I mean, the president of the Police Officers Guild was blaming left-wing provocateurs for inciting the insurrection in Washington DC. So these two sides really could not be more different, and so coming together on accountability measures that the City is happy with is going to be a struggle. I would say as a sign of just how hard people in City Hall think it's going to be, Mayor Durkan has been in Olympia lobbying the State to basically pass a law rolling back how broad these contracts can reach and how easily officers can go to appeals and arbitrators to get out of discipline. Because she understands that without state level changes, that the City is going to have to negotiate these things and it's going to be a really tough battle.
The things she's advocating for are almost certainly not going to pass Olympia, which means the City is going to be left to figure out how to deal with the police union. I think it's going to take years, at least. And then at risk of getting too wonky, the extra layer of wrinkle here is a federal judge who is involved because of the City's longstanding obligations to reform its police department under a consent decree. That federal judge is also really unhappy with the Seattle police contracts. So there's a question around what he might do and how he might step in and demand changes to bargaining processes, which would open up a whole new can of worms. I can say that it is going to be one of the most thorny legal and political things to happen.
Not to mention - the mayor has not started these negotiations yet with the police union, even though the contract is now technically expired. She has a year to start them. I don't know if that's going to happen, but then at the end of that year, she's not going to be in office anymore. You're going to have a new mayor who might come in and decide that he or she has an entirely new strategy and wants to go a different direction on contract negotiation. So I think it's a minefield of complexities when it comes to renegotiating this contract and yet the stakes are really, really high.
Crystal Fincher: [00:16:02] How is it going to be possible for them to meaningfully lay forward or lay down a plan that they feel is achievable when this contract isn't settled? Do you think that they're going to be able to speak credibly and come up with a plan that they can deliver without knowing what's going to wind up in the contract?
David Kroman: [00:16:24] Yeah, I do. I mean, I think what they can do - what the contract doesn't prevent the Council from doing is building out the alternatives that we talked about. There are certain working conditions and pay questions and accountability questions that are real, legitimate things that are going to be really hard to get around in the contract. But what it doesn't prevent is budget cuts. I mean, the City Council can cut the police department's budget. And how layoffs happen is a contract issue, so that's sort of thorny. But if a mayor comes in and wants to cut the police department's budget, the contract can't stop that because that's a city level thing. And again, similarly, if the mayor wants to fund replacements for the police department, the contract also doesn't stop that.
What the contract does really make difficult is if there are certain sorts of officers that you want to get rid of and other officers that you want to keep, that's kind of tricky. We've seen some debate around - can you target layoffs at officers that you see as problem officers? I don't know that the contract makes that really hard. Can you prevent officers who have been fired or disciplined from having that discipline overturned? That is something that the contract makes really difficult. As far as wholesale trying to build a brand new public safety system, the City Council and the mayor can do that. That's a policy question. But as far as reforming the police department from inside out, that is the thing that the contract makes really difficult and will almost certainly make the job of the next mayor more difficult.
Crystal Fincher: [00:18:22] Well, that's a really good point and in one way encouraging - that preventing contacts that then lead to a variety of things is within their wheelhouse. Working within the existing system, working through officer discipline, seems that's still very reliant on what the contract dictates - but they can move forward with some alternative models, as you talked about. Some of them have some real concrete examples of success in other areas that actually seems like they can accomplish and set forth quite a bit in terms of a plan of how to move forward.
David Kroman: [00:19:02] I would say the caveat to that is how the police department is structured - is really just up to the Police Chief. We saw some of the limitations of the Council pretty quickly in the summer and the fall when they started making cuts to the budget and they passed these resolutions saying, "We would like to see these cuts targeted in this way. We want to cut Harbor Patrol and we want to cut Mounted Police." So we could see what their priorities were but the reality was they can't dictate that at all - it's up to the Police Chief to decide. The Police Chief has to absorb these cuts and make do with them, but it's the Police Chief's job to decide where those cuts should be targeted.
And so what we saw pretty quickly is that Interim Chief Adrian Diaz was absorbing some of those cuts and saying, "I'm going to pull people off of specialty units and put them towards 911 response, because that's my priority." Which meant we were seeing reductions in things like domestic violence response or internet crimes response, which were things that actually the City Council didn't want to see cut as much. They were interested in reducing the number of people who were responding to 911 calls. So the contract, maybe doesn't explicitly prevent the City Council from making targeted cuts, but what really prevents it is just that all of that authority really rests with currently, Adrian Diaz. And they can express to him what they would prefer to see, but it is his decision at the end of the day.
Crystal Fincher: [00:20:30] And one thing that we're also going to see with the new mayor is an appointment of a permanent chief - looks like after they take office. What's on your radar most as you're looking at what's next with policing in Seattle? What are you watching? And what do you think is going to be most consequential?
David Kroman: [00:20:47] Not going to be super interesting but I'm watching how this money is spent. There's money on the table in a way that there wasn't necessarily before. Where's it going to go, and who's going to get it? I think the City Council and the mayor understand that their changes have to be felt on the ground in a meaningful way. I think that was a lot of the frustration that we felt in the protest, which was promises from people like City Hall - we're working on things, things are getting better - but it just was not being felt or perceived in a real, tangible way on the ground. You've made these promises that you're going to create this new public safety system, and it's not going to come at the expense of individuals' feeling of being safe in the city.
So are they going to succeed in that? I think a year from now, if they can't point to very specific things and people don't feel like things have improved, it only gets harder from there on out - the clock is ticking. I'm also going to be watching as you alluded to - whoever the next mayor is - is going to immediately launch a search for a new Police Chief. Mayor Durkan didn't formally acknowledge that she would leave it to the next mayor but has made it fairly clear that she's not going to launch a search for a permanent chief right now. So who that police chief is, I think will be a big symbolic and practical statement by the new mayor about which direction they want to head. Not to mention we still have this consent decree, that's been hanging in the background. The judge recently made it clear - he was going to get more involved in the daily budgeting and politics of City Hall, so that could be another wrinkle.
Crystal Fincher: [00:22:33] Well, and it seems to be a present wrinkle - it looks like the judge and what he might rule has impacted a decision, even yesterday, on how to proceed with whether to ban tear gas or not. So is the consent decree helpful? Is it putting handcuffs on what the City Council is able to do? How does that impact the whole scenario?
David Kroman: [00:22:59] The consent decree has become really interesting recently - you'll remember that over the summer the City actually filed to basically dismiss most of the consent decree, not all of it. I think the timing on that was really bad, because it came right as these protests were hitting their peak. And so it came across as the City trying to get out from underneath the accountability eye of a federal judge. So the symbolism of it was not great, got a pretty bad reaction, and the city backed off of it. At the same time, I was hearing from surprising people, people that you wouldn't necessarily expect to say this, "Look, the consent decree has run its course. What we are talking about in these protests - which is creating this fundamentally new form of public safety - that is not going to be achieved by the consent decree. And in fact, the consent decree could end up being a barrier to it because the federal judge wants to know every single change that is happening to the police department and he wants to be involved."
This judge, Judge Robart, he's a really interesting judge. I think some judges pretend as if they live in this sealed capsule in their courtroom or whatever, and they will only consider things that come in via official filings. This judge is not like that - he reads the news, he comments on the news, he makes decisions based on what he reads in the news, he follows city politics and will readily comment on it. And just the other day, he made fairly clear that he was concerned about the way in which the City Council is operating. And you're totally right - the City Council not only was considering this bill on less lethal weapons, it was also considering cuts of another about $5.5 million dollars to the police department to make up for money that they said they needed last year to cover overtime expenses. They tabled that so that they could have more conversations with the Department of Justice and the consent decree. So the fact that this pretty liberal City Council has to run everything they do through - pass it over the desk of a long-serving judge who was appointed by George W. Bush, makes for a really interesting dynamic. And if you're the City Council, I'm not sure it's one that is all that helpful to your goals.
Crystal Fincher: [00:25:24] So do you anticipate action, based on especially what we've seen recently, in preventing the Council from being able to pass more progressive policies with the expectation that they can be implemented? Are they going to move to get out from under the consent decree?
David Kroman: [00:25:44] I don't know if they're going to move - and frankly, I think if they did move to get out from under the consent decree, he would reject it. I don't think he would grant that - I think he's not pleased with the current moment. He really liked Kathy O'Toole, the former police chief, and then he really liked Carmen Best, the successor. And he made it fairly clear he did not like her exit. He blamed the City Council for the fact that she left, which we could debate - we can have a whole conversation around whether that's a fair interpretation of things, but it is his interpretation of things. And as a federal judge, that's all that really matters. So I'm not sure he would let the City Council or the City get out from underneath the consent decree anymore.
Whether or not he issues a ruling or not, I'm not sure. He likes to issue these kinds of threats - he has done blustery things in the past that don't always necessarily come with a commensurate hard-hitting demand or order. But it's possible he could hold the City in contempt of court if he feels like they are moving forward on things without properly checking in with him first. So that itself is going to be a really interesting dynamic to watch and I frankly don't think he's going to go anywhere. I think he's going to be here for at least the next year - we'll see.
Crystal Fincher: [00:27:10] Okay, well that's certainly interesting and there are so many factors that we've covered here - that are outside of the City and not the mayor or the City Council - that are highly influential or that can straight up dictate what is going to happen with policing. And so is there any remedy beyond the judge? Can his decisions be appealed or is he just in control?
David Kroman: [00:27:40] I don't know - that's a good question. I don't think I'm smart enough legally to know what happens when there's this fundamental disagreement. It'd be interesting to see how the Department of Justice, who is technically the opposition in this case that the city has to deal with. It'll be interesting to see their tone change - because for the last four years, they have been pretty absent from this whole thing because of who was in the White House. Now that there is a new president, it's possible that they might take a little more interest in what the City is or is not doing.
So I don't actually know the answer to that question - if they could elevate this to another level or not. I think at least with the current mayor and the current City Attorney, Pete Holmes, I think that's fairly unlikely. They've always been pretty deferential to this judge and wanted to do what he's asked. If there's a new more lefty mayor who - Lorena González said, over the summer, that she was over this reform stuff and wanted to rebuild in a more radical way. It's possible she would want the City to move to dismiss this in a more complete way - I don't know. But like you said, I think the broader point is that there are the things the City Council wants to do, and there's the things that the mayor wants to do, but the fact that you have both this contract with the Seattle Police Officers Guild to deal with and this federal judge to deal with is a hint that it might not always be up to them, exactly how this goes.
Crystal Fincher: [00:29:32] We'll be staying tuned and certainly reading your coverage at Crosscut, to stay up to date on what is happening. You have been so informative, we've filled up the entire half an hour with talk about the police and you cover so much more. So maybe we can have you on again sometime to talk about the election and other events in the City. But sincerely appreciate you taking time to help enlighten us on where things stand and just what the situation is on what is possible and what's in our control in the City of Seattle and what's not.
David Kroman: [00:30:02] Thanks so much for having me. I appreciate it.
Crystal Fincher: [00:30:07] Thank you for listening to Hacks and Wonks. Our chief audio engineer at KVRU is Maurice Jones Jr. The producer of Hacks and Wonks is Lisl Stadler. You can find me on Twitter @finchfrii, spelled F-I-N-C-H-F-R-I-I. And now you can follow Hacks and Wonks on iTunes, Spotify or wherever else you get your podcasts just type in "Hacks and Wonks" into the search bar. Be sure to subscribe, to get our Friday almost-live shows and our midweek show delivered to your podcast feed. You can also get a full text transcript of this episode and links to the resources referenced during the show at officialhacksandwonks.com and in the podcast episode notes.
Thanks for tuning in - talk to you next time.