Friday, August 12, 2022
Aug. 12, 2022

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Westneat: Seattle botches defund the police


Whether you think defund the police has some merit, or not, it’s becoming clear that no entity in the country has bungled the idea more than the city of Seattle.

We couldn’t even get the meter reader part of it right.

It never made much sense how moving parking enforcement out of the Police Department, and into the roads department, would further social or racial justice. But it was proposed in the hot summer of 2020 anyway, as a way to stick it to the cops by cutting their budget. Along with more meaningful moves, such as moving the 911 dispatch center to a new department to try to shift how many calls are answered by officers with guns.

The City Council initially cut the police budget by about 17 percent, never reaching the 50 percent goal. The agency has been in a tailspin ever since.

More than 400 officers have left while crime has soared. The Seattle Times and KUOW report that new sex assault cases aren’t being investigated because of understaffing. Meanwhile, the softer approaches envisioned for community safety still are in the pilot stages.

This past week the city announced it is refunding 100,000 parking tickets and voiding another 100,000 because of an oversight — namely that the parking enforcement officers, who are civilians, were not regranted the authority to write tickets after they were switched out of the Police Department last fall.

It’s a $5 million mistake — or it would be if that’s hopefully the end of it. But there’s another wrinkle, which like most of the defund the police efforts so far, could snowball in an unintended direction.

It turns out that during the seven-month period when the meter readers lacked the right commission to do their jobs, they also authorized more than 10,000 tows of cars and trucks from city streets.

“We’re still crunching our data, but so far we count 10,256 impounds authorized by the Seattle PEOs (parking enforcement officers),” said Chuck Labertew, president of Lincoln Towing, which has the sole contract for city-initiated towing.

“We also auctioned off some of those cars.” Labertew estimates about 1,700 of the 10,000-plus cars were sold.

In a statement Friday, the city said it is not planning on automatically refunding towing and storage fees related to bad tickets, on the grounds that it doesn’t necessarily require a ticket to get towed.

“What’s going to happen here is that we’re going to get sued, I can guarantee it,” Labertew said. “And I’m going to forward every one of those lawsuits on over to the city.”

One Seattle City Councilmember, Alex Pedersen, summed up the ticket fiasco: “This reinforces that rearranging our public safety systems is complicated, and can result in unintended consequences unless implemented with the utmost care.”

Yes, and it isn’t clear, yet, who in administration failed here. But all nine members of the council did vote for this in the activism-fueled atmosphere of 2020. At that time there hadn’t been an in-depth study of the move, nor was anyone really asking for it. The Black Lives Matter protesters weren’t clamoring about parking meter readers; they were focused on the work of actual cops.

There’s been some talk of expanding the parking enforcers’ duties to include some things cops do now, like directing traffic or responding to car prowls. But if they’re going to be doing some crime work in the future, why shift them to the roads department in the first place?

The real reason for all this was performative — it was to appear to be slashing the police budget, without actually cutting services or saving money.

Transferring parking enforcement was supposed to be the easy part.

The hard part — softening some of the city’s public safety response — is a worthy goal. It’s incredibly complex and delicate work, though. It means setting up a system that can assess, accurately, safely and often instantly, whether to dispatch to volatile street scenes some social help, or uniformed officers with guns.

What’s happened with the meter readers sure doesn’t lend much confidence to the effort.

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