By Becky Chan
Northwest Asian Weekly
The Seattle City Council wants the Seattle Police Department (SPD) budget cut by 50%—drawing criticism from Mayor Jenny Durkan and Police Chief Carman Best at a July 13 news conference.
The millions of dollars would be redirected to community-based solutions, affordable housing, and a new approach to public safety.
“Defunding the police. What does that mean?” asked SPD Lt. Paul Leung.
“The last three, four years, we’ve had problems getting recruits so we’re always short handed,” Leung said.
Leung spoke with the Northwest Asian Weekly recently about the calls to defund the police, and vacating and reoccupying the SPD’s East Precinct during the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests.
After the death of George Floyd during his arrest by Minneapolis police officers, demonstrators in Seattle moved nightly protests from downtown to the area in front of the East Precinct on Capitol Hill, demanding justice for police brutality. The precinct on 1519 12th Avenue and its surrounding area became the hub of activities.
On June 1, Leung and Capt. Bryan Grenon, after negotiating with Capitol Hill Organized Protest (CHOP) zone demonstrators, each took a knee to show support for the demonstration.
“They asked to speak to the commander who is in charge of the precinct. That’s Captain Grenon, and I am second in command…so we were up there talking to the protesters,” Leung said.
The demonstrators had a list of demands they wanted the police to meet.
Leung said, “We cut a deal and basically negotiated. ‘Hey, we could do this, but we couldn’t do that…and explained why we had to put up the fence line.’ We were actually having a dialogue with the protesters.”
Because of what’s happened to some of the police precincts around the country, Leung and Grenon wanted to protect theirs. The pair did not want the East Precinct, a critical infrastructure of the city, compromised or set on fire, like Minneapolis’ 3rd Precinct, where Floyd’s four arresting officers worked. Leung and Grenon explained that to the protesters.
“They understood it,” Leung said. The demonstrators asked the two senior officers to support their movement and kneel with them. Leung said he and Grenon support a nonviolent movement and the First Amendment.
The protesters wanted all officers to kneel. Leung told them, “It’s not negotiable since the officers had a job to do.” It was agreed that Leung and Grenon would take a knee when the protesters knelt to show their support.
A few days later, the “summer of love” in Capitol Hill turned violent. Leung attributed it to the anarchists who mixed in with the peaceful demonstrators, especially in big crowds, which made them difficult to be identified. Leung said the peaceful protesters were reasonable and understanding. It was the anarchists who threw bottles and rocks.
“We are reactive to it,” Leung commented. The police’s response with tear gas escalated the situation. Tension mounted and continued until the officers left the precinct to avoid more violent confrontations.
Leung received the directive from the department’s Special Patrol Operations Center to evacuate the precinct.
“It’s still being debated” who ordered it. Chief Best has said publicly that it was not her decision to leave the East Precinct.
In the wee hours of June 12, a man tried to set fire to the precinct while it was vacant and boarded up. The fire was put out by people nearby.
After the establishment of CHOP, four separate shootings in the span of 10 days killed Horace Lorenzo Anderson, 19, of Seattle, and Antonio Mays, Jr., 16, of Southern California. Four others were injured. Those in CHOP complained that police and paramedics were slow to respond. Investigations on the shootings are pending.
Officers have since moved back to the precinct as of July 6. In the meantime, Leung believes the response time to incidents will be quicker. Because of the presence of armed guards protecting CHOP, responses there put his officers at high risk. A minimum of four officers would be required to respond to incidents in or near the area to ensure the officers’ safety. The Seattle Fire Department’s policy also requires the police to secure a potential violent situation before it would respond.
“Our staffing is already short enough,” Leung said, “That really affected the response time.”
The future of the precinct is up to the community and the city. “I’m hoping the precinct will remain here,” Leung said, “But I don’t have a lot to say about that.” Leung, an officer for SPD for 36 years, was promoted to his current position in 2017. He has served in the precinct, in various times, throughout his career.
In 1981, the city had proposed to build a precinct on a Central District city lot on 23rd and Yesler. Demonstrators occupied the area to demand housing, not “jail houses.” Leung said the Black community, the SPD, and the city came to an agreement to house the precinct in the current location—on the corner of 12th and Pine, which opened in 1986.
“Seattle is not Minneapolis. Not all police departments are the same,” Leung said.
He believes the SPD to be a leader in innovation and integrity. “Maybe there are some isolated situations, but, I think, the SPD is doing a very good job in educating our officers about diversity.”
The SPD has a mandatory of a minimum of eight hours of annual training on diversity and discrimination for all officers. In the April 11, 2019 issue, the Northwest Asian Weekly reported a two-day implicit bias training for the SPD’s new officers.
One of the demands of the BLM movement around the country and in Seattle is to defund the police.
“Because of the number of people we employ, the police is costly,” Leung said, “You got to look at the staffing. Is everybody doing what they are supposed to do? Statistically when you cut the police department or if you have fewer officers, the crime rate also goes up.”
“Is the community going to sacrifice the polices’ response?” Leung asked. “There’s got to be a balance.”
Of Seattle’s $6.5 billion budget in 2020, SPD had the fourth largest allocation with $409 million, ranked after Seattle City Light, Seattle Public Utilities, and the Department of Transportation. The SPD employs 1,444 sworn officers and 580 civilians. A majority of its budget goes to wages, benefits, and overtime.
Councilmembers Tammy Morales, Kshama Sawant, Teresa Mosqueda, and M. Lorena Gonzalez have said that 50% of the SPD’s budget should be redirected, though they haven’t yet said exactly how they believe that should happen.
Durkan said a preliminary review has found that $76 million in cuts to the SPD’s 2021 budget could be made safely, without jeoparding 911 service.
Becky can be reached at email@example.com.