Seattle City Council could vote to shrink police department by 100 officers next week

The clock is ticking on a major vote by Seattle’s City Council to defund parts of the police budget. As early as Monday, council members could vote to shrink the department by 100 officers, slash the salary of the police chief and most alarming to some — eliminate the team that deals with Seattle’s overwhelming homeless population.

Wednesday, the Seattle City Council voted 5-4 to defund the Navigation Team. It’s a program made of Seattle police officers to get those experiencing homelessness off the streets and into a shelter before the camp is cleared out. During a meeting Thursday, council member Tammy Morales said the money to fund the team should be invested in diversion programs, like LEAD and REACH.

“They have the trust of the homeless community. They have the connections and relationships with the shelter providers and other mental health services that Folks might need. And they really are the ones that have an understanding of the systems,” said Morales.

LEAD is a diversion program that receives referrals from law enforcement. LEAD agents are not going to encampments consistently. REACH is a program through United Way that helps connect people with resources. Though council members mentioned these organizations and other outreach groups during Thursday’s meeting, it was not made clear how money shifted to those programs would be used.

Jason Johnson is the interim director for the city’s Human Services Department, which works alongside the Navigation Team. In a written statement opposing the city council’s vote, Johnson said, “REACH—and other outreach providers—cannot produce the same level of data, detail, or examples of success, yet Council continues to point to agencies and data-less models as preferable.”

Mayor Jenny Durkan also expressed her opposition of the city council’s vote. In a written statement, she said she is, “concerned that the Council has voted to eliminate this entire unit without a plan to bridge the gap with outreach services or to address the impacts of unmanaged encampments that pose the most serious public health and safety dangers. In addition, this amendment would force layoffs of 10 dedicated, mission-driven HSD workers.”

Encampments have increasingly developed throughout the city. In Seattle’s Pioneer Square neighborhood, tents block sideways and almost spill onto the street. Business owners said more and more encampments are growing right outside their doors.

“When there is no law, then lawlessness happens. And I think you’re going to start seeing encampments all over the City of Seattle and that’s a huge concern for myself,” said James Wong, CEO of Vibrant Cities, a real estate company.

Q13 News first met Wong back in May, concerned about an encampment that popped up in the International District. Since then, Wong said the ‘tent city’ has gotten out of control.

“There were shootings, there were drug issues, there’s prostitution, there’s mugging, there’s all kinds of issues when you allow encampments to happen. And when you get rid of the Navigation Team that helped put some law and order into these encampments and you get rid of them, oh my god! I’m worried about what’s going to happen without them,” said Wong.

Wong said city leaders should have dealt with encampments and the activity surrounding them long before now.

“I say it’s all talk and we want to see where is the beef. Where is the actual action and solutions? So, getting rid of the Navigation Team is not the solution,” said Wong.

The Human Services Department said the Navigation Team has seen its strongest outreach numbers so far in 2020 since the group’s founding. HSD said the team made more than 4,700 conversations with those experiencing homelessness. Those conversations resulted in more than 400 referrals to a shelter and nearly 150 shelter enrollments.

The city council plans to vote on the final budget as early as next week.