Editor’s Note: In this episode of the (mostly) weekly Seattle Nice podcast, KUOW politics reporter David Hyde broaches the fraught topic of why Seattle police are failing to investigate sexual assaults in a timely way. On hand are Seattle Nice’s two antagonists, Publicola editor Erica C. Barnett and political and public affairs consultant Sandeep Kaushik. Below is a transcript of the conversation, recorded on June 10, edited for flow and clarity:
David Hyde: Hello and welcome to the latest edition of Seattle Nice. I’m David Hyde, a politics reporter here in Seattle. She’s the editor and publisher of Publicola, Erica C. Barnett. Also with us as always political consultant Sandeep Kaushik, also known in some circles as the David Gergen of Seattle politics.
Today’s show, starts with a story about the Seattle Police Department, specifically, the sexual assault and child abuse unit. Seattle Times and KUOW are reporting that SPD is not fully staffing the unit and not assigning new cases with adult victims. Is this a story about SPD misallocating resources? Is it a story about understaffing at the Seattle Police Department?
Erica Barnett: The Seattle Times is claiming that somehow it’s the City Council’s fault, when the City Council is not actually in the chain of command for SPD. So my take is that this is a decision that SPD made perhaps because they are low on staff, where there’s been a lot of attrition from the department. But I mean, it’s a choice. In the first quarter of 2022, SPD assigned 23,000 hours of overtime to things like directing traffic outside of events. That also was a choice. And different decisions could be made. For example, the parking enforcement officers really want to be able to do stuff like direct traffic that would free up SPD, but the police union doesn’t want to lose those lucrative overtime hours. So it’s a complicated issue, but to say that it’s the fault of the City Council for briefly talking about defunding police two years ago, is just kind of absurd.
Sandeep Kaushik: I found this whole kerfuffle fascinating because I think it’s a window onto the ideological schizophrenia – or at least ideological incoherence – of the Seattle left when it comes to the whole question of defunding the police. For years activists and a huge swath of left progressive organizations and elected leaders have been paying lip service to this mantra and ideology of defund, which is not just a call for a general 50 percent cut, that seven of the nine City Council members endorsed infamously in 2020. But it is a very specific agenda.
And one thing that’s been circulating around over the last couple of days is the “Solidarity Budget” that the defund activists put out in September of last year, which was their blueprint for what they wanted to see happen with this SPD budget in the 2022 calendar year. And lo and behold, one of the key recommendations of the Solidarity Budget was that they cut the allocation of resources to what they call in the document the Special Victims Unit. But it’s the Sexual Assault and Child Abuse unit. They explicitly call for a 50 percent reduction of resources to that unit for investigations and prosecutions of sex crimes, because cops can’t be trusted to investigate sex crimes and the money is better repurposed. So if you’re for that, Erica, why are you against SPD pulling resources from that unit to shore up other areas like patrol?
Erica Barnett: You’re conflating so many things. You’re conflating the City Council, you’re conflating the City Council with an activist group that has a budget that I haven’t seen and can’t respond to, but that is certainly not the budget that is in place in the city right now.
Sandeep Kaushik: Puget Sound Sage and the Transit Riders Union and One America and dozens and dozens of left progressive groups in the city of Seattle endorsed it
Erica Barnett: I’m not currently following something from a year ago. But I am aware of the fact that the city has NOT defunded the police department, that the city just approved more than a million dollars out of this year’s budget to getting more police to hiring a recruiter to giving bonuses to new recruits. You’re mad about a document from a year ago, that didn’t happen. And when we look at what actually did happen, the police have never been defunded. And in fact, the City Council is trying desperately to hire more police, the fact that police are leaving for all different sorts of reasons, including the fact that they got incentives for retirement from the state, including the fact that a lot of them decided they didn’t want to get vaccinated.
Sandeep Kaushik: You’re not following [the story] and neither are your movement left friends, because it’s an incredibly inconvenient truth at the present moment, when they thought they were going to get a situational win of bashing SPD over [sex assault investigations]. And by the way, the Solidarity Budget people at the time that the 2022 Seattle City Council budget was passed, put out a press release declaring victory and saying [the police were defunded]. Why are they saying that budget was a huge win?
Erica Barnett: I don’t know. All the assault cases that are not being investigated now because Seattle Police Chief Diaz [resides] here in the real world, not in a press release from a year ago. We’re not investigating those cases, because in part officers are spending a lot of time doing stuff like directing traffic, when they could be putting that overtime into investigating these cases.
David Hyde: Isn’t that part of the question here that we started out with? How much of this decision making on the part of SPD is related to staffing issues? Help me understand.
Sandeep Kaushik: Let me just be very clear. I did not say the City Council made the decision to cut the current level of staffing for the sexual assault unit at SPD. That is not what happened in the ‘22 budget. But there was certainly a groundswell of people, including by the way a leading voice for this was Nikita Oliver, who Erica, you endorsed…
Erica Barnett: Who didn’t win?
David Hyde: Let me understand it, though. So the Solidarity Budget called for defunding SPD by 50 percent. And this Special Victims Unit, which is not correctly named, but also [cut] by 50 percent, in favor of other kinds of essentially abolitionist solutions, right. But then Erica, if you’re endorsing Nikita Oliver or other groups are endorsing Nikkita Oliver, The Stranger, what have you, aren’t they also essentially endorsing that budget? Which would have done that?
Erica Barnett: No, I’m not saying that at all. I’m saying this is all in the past. And I’m saying we’re talking about a current story that results from different factors. However, I mean, if we want to get into the nuances of endorsements, one of the true facts about endorsements is that you have to endorse from among the people you are presented with. I initially endorsed Brianna Thomas at Publicola. I thought she was the best person for that position. And guess what, she didn’t make it out of the primary.
So then, you know, the options were Nikkita Oliver and Sarah Nelson, who I think has proved to be, you know, the furthest right member of the City Council on a lot of these issues, conflating homelessness and crime, and making a lot of statements that I strongly disagree with and that I don’t believe are fact based. So I actually stand by that endorsement of Nikita Oliver from between those two options. But again, we’re talking about a current situation in the real world right now, where, as you pointed out, David, the question is it a lack of police overall to investigate or detectives to investigate these crimes? Is it the result of decisions in allocation by police? Chief Diaz? And I think it’s both.
Sandeep Kaushik: I agree with that, too. It’s both. But people like Chief Diaz are presented with a series of Sophie’s choices, or bad choices like, “I don’t have enough staffing to fulfill SPD obligations. So what is the exercise and triage I do?” I mean, that’s the choice that Chief Diaz is facing on a daily basis when they can’t even staff the precincts at adequate levels to respond on many days to anything but Priority One, the most immediate top priority, 911 calls, and the other three categories of calls just go unanswered on a routine basis.
David Hyde: So then the second question: Should they have allocated resources differently?
Erica Barnett: Well, I’m not going to say “misallocating” because I’m not inside Chief Diaz’s head. But I will say the police department has allocated a ton of resources to hanging around encampment sweeps. I asked about this last week. And what they told me is that they had been assaulted, that Parks workers had been assaulted by protesters and asked for police backup.
I asked further about these assaults. And it sounds like there was an incident in which there was some shoving back and forth. One incident and some incidents where people were throwing pine cones or one or more incidents, and then the rest were kind of like people yelling. And in response to that the police have done a show of overwhelming force as the Seattle Times/KUOW story mentioned. You know, they’ve got twice as many people in staffing encampments as are on the sexual assault unit. Now, I am going to say that’s a misallocation of priorities between those two things. I think sexual assaults are much more serious crime than someone yelling mean things at a Parks worker who’s throwing away somebody’s tent.
Sandeep Kaushik: If I was a park worker assigned to some of those cleanups, I would probably be pretty freaked out. Some of those activists have long Twitter records celebrating acts of violence, and you know, and that sort of stuff. I’m saying if I’m having to deal with that person who’s in my face and yelling at me at an encampment clean up, and they have this track record of saying pro-violence things on public media, then I yeah, I would probably be freaked out too. And I’d probably want some kind of police presence there in case things got out of hand.
Erica Barnett: Well, I mean, that is your priority. And you’re saying that you would prioritize that over sexual assault investigations, because that is the decision.
Sandeep Kaushik: We wouldn’t have been [in this place], except for some really stupid ideas that got promoted in 2020. Ideas that were politically toxic and stupid on a policy level.
Erica Barnett: Well, that assertion is basically saying that you believe that police feelings were hurt so bad that they left the department because in 2020, some people were saying they should be defunded. The thing that never happened.
Sandeep Kaushik: The massive attrition from SPD is of course, not directly but indirectly related to the whole mantra of defund.
Erica Barnett: So we get back to a mantra, “caused people to quit.” And I just don’t I don’t buy that. I mean, the public is hearing that police are that delicate that they that they got their feelings hurt because there was some mantra from some activists about a thing that never happened. I think police are made of a little bit tougher stuff than that.
Sandeep Kaushik: We’re down to like 900 deployable cops in the city of Seattle, when we have a staffing goal of between 1,300 and 1,400 cops, so they’re way down.
Erica Barnett: If we’re talking about copaganda. I don’t disagree that we are we’re down a number of officers. But I also think that saying the staffing goal is 1,400. Well, Sandeep, come on, let’s live in the real world. They’re not gonna get up to 1,400. So we’re talking more about 1,000.
Sandeep Kaushik: I looked this up and the peak actual staffing at SPD was in the low 1,300s a few years ago.
David Hyde: What’s the political fallout now? Where does this story go? I mean, what happens?
Sandeep Kaushik: I think the fallout is less about this unit. It’s about, we are seeing a kind of massive walk back, what we’re seeing is the death throes, the political death throes of defund in Seattle. That’s what we’re watching. And we’re watching various people scrambling trying to find ideological safe ground to kind of explain their previous positions or reconcile their previous positions with the new dispensation or the reality on the ground.
I mean, we just had in San Francisco, they just recalled their friggin’ DA last week, over many, many of the same sorts of sorts of issues that have been roiling Seattle. And I think the wind is blowing in a very different direction in blue cities like Seattle and San Francisco and Portland right now than they were a couple years ago. And I think we’re seeing that recalibration happening in real time.
Erica Barnett: Real quickly on that point, there’s been a lot of focus on this incredibly low turnout election in San Francisco. Where, you know, it’s possible to spend unlimited money. The DA, who was not very popular personally to begin with, although many of his policies poll extremely well, was outspent, ten to one. And a lot of the coverage has ignored lots and lots and lots of counter examples.
In fact, I’d say there are many more counter examples across the country than the two [races] that people are focusing on, that DA [recall] race and the mayoral primary in Los Angeles. There’s races all over all over the country. And even in California, where reformer candidates came in first. So, you know, Contra Costa County, Alameda County, Oakland, Philadelphia. It’s easy to cherry pick one or two examples. And I think that’s what the national media certainly is doing. The New York Times is a pretty bad offender on this front.
Sandeep Kaushik: I don’t disagree that people in cities like Seattle support relatively progressive policies around policing and criminal justice. I think that’s true. The problem is we’ve gone, in many instances, including with a San Francisco DA and including to a very significant extent what happened here in the last couple years, we’ve gone past relatively progressive reforms into a cloud cuckoo land of taking what are good ideas and popular ideas and pushing them past their breaking point.
David Hyde: All right. We’ll have to leave it there. And thanks so much for listening to another edition of Seattle. Nice. She’s Erica C. Barnett. He’s Sandeep Kaushik. I’m David Hyde. You can find us on Twitter, @RealSeattleNice. You can also donate to Seattle Nice at Patreon.