Thursday, August 13, 2020
Aug. 13, 2020

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Westneat: Polls show police reform possible

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Despite all the heat and misunderstanding about it, there’s still a possible path in Seattle, and maybe even outside the city, to “defunding the police.”

But it also seems like the public may need some more time on the issue — the one thing advocates and the Seattle City Council seem loath to give.

That’s my read anyway on some new local polls on policing, about how the public views the urgent Black Lives Matter calls to redirect money spent on law enforcement.

A new poll of Seattle city voters finds we’re essentially divided on the question. When asked whether “reallocating 50 percent of the Seattle Police budget to community services” is a good idea, 48 percent said yes, 44 percent no.

That’s a favorable result for such a hot-button proposal. It’s no fringe position. But it’s also down from support measured about a month ago.

That poll I just cited, by Pacific Northwest outfit Patinkin Research Strategies, was paid for by UFCW 21, a local grocery workers union active in city politics. The margin of error is plus or minus 5 points — meaning Seattle right now is effectively a toss-up on the idea, as it now sits before the city council.

Another new local poll, released by the news site Crosscut, may point to what the problem is, and where solutions might lie.

It asked voters statewide a series of questions about police reform. Do you support cutting funding for the police by 50 percent? Heck no, Washington voters answered — by a 56-point landslide, with only 17 percent in favor and 73 percent against.

OK, then do you support taking funding from the police force and investing it in social services? Here, the result was, as in the Seattle poll, more positive, a toss-up within the poll’s margin of error.

This all seems like an opening for the police reformers, should they choose to take it. The political problem isn’t the core idea of directing some money away from law enforcement and toward violence-prevention programs. People seem to like that.

The hang-up is the 50 percent cut to police. It feels arbitrary. No one has yet made a case, at least not one that draws the support of a majority, how slicing it in half would produce better results.

Worrisome for the reformers is that when KING 5 asked the same question more than a month ago — do you want to redirect 50 percent of the police budget to community groups — Seattleites agreed to it then by 20 points.

But that was before the Capitol Hill protest zone went haywire with all the shootings. And also before an eruption of violence in the month of July. So far this year there have been 21 Seattle homicides — more than we saw in the entire year a few times during the past decade.

These polls are saying the public is open to big changes in how the police function, such as by having mental-health pros respond to more crisis calls. At the same time, it’s going to be a tough sell to start laying off patrol officers at the moment violent crime in the city is on the rise. Maybe an answer is to have social workers go on calls alongside police, not in lieu of them? Only this would cost more money, not less.

The other developing story in these polls is that the public is souring on the leaders whose job it is to solve these problems. That would be Gov. Jay Inslee, and Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan. People are not impressed with how either of them has dealt with the protests and the police.

Inslee’s favorability rating, which two months ago was at 61 percent, has fallen back to earth. Tuesday’s Crosscut poll pegged it at 49 percent positive, 49 percent negative.

Now Donald Trump, as he likes to do, is bigfooting on all of this by sending federal troops into policing roles in cities. Forget local police, this soon could mushroom into “defund the Department of Homeland Security” (hey, that’s not a bad idea …).

As I said up top, there’s opportunity here: For a solution that starts to demilitarize the cops, yet isn’t politically wedded to hitting a street-slogan percentage. First person at City Hall to propose one in detail, I bet the public would be strongly behind it.

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