The head of the Seattle Police Department (SPD) has abruptly stepped down after the city council voted 7-1 to cut the police budget – by less than 1 per cent.
Carmen Best, the first black woman to head up the department, announced her decision in an email to staff, writing that “when it’s time, it’s time”.
“I am confident the department will make it through these difficult times. You truly are the best police department in the country and please trust me when I say the vast majority of people in Seattle support you and appreciate you.”
Ms Best had taken umbrage at proposals to defund the SPD, which were first raised after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis and which have only gathered pace since.
At a press conference with mayor Jenny Durkan on Saturday, she acknowledged that “overall, there are some good approaches in the proposals”, pointing out that the department had had many of the same ideas already.
“But what is problematic,” she said, “is that these are approaches without any clarity on how they will become reality. What is the plan? The push from council and some of our community is to do these large-scale changes in 2020 with no practical plan for community safety. And I believe wholeheartedly that is completely reckless.”
While many protesters had demanded a 50 per cent cut, the measure passed by the council will take just $3.5m out of the department’s 2020 budget of $409m. The cuts are targeted at both specific units and executive pay, and also eliminate 100 police officers from the force.
The SPD was investigated for excessive use of force nearly a decade ago, with the Justice Department finding that its officers escalated encounters over minor offenses, too readily used weapons – and that where they used force, “they do so in an unconstitutional manner nearly 20 percent of the time”.
And after years of tension over these practices, Seattle has seen some of the most dramatic demonstrations in any US city since Mr Floyd’s death.
At one point, protesters not only clashed with police but also barricaded themselves into a police-free area, the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone. The project eventually collapsed under the weight of various social problems, including gun violence and homelessness, that residents struggled to address.
Nonetheless, demonstrations against the police department’s conduct continue. As the defunding measure worked its way through the city council, some members reported being harassed by protesters who gathered outside their homes to demand the measure be expanded to halve the force’s budget.
Yet even the smaller cut has been controversial, with the Downtown Seattle Association of businesses complaining that the measure removes officers from homelessness outreach teams.
Additional reporting by Reuters