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Off the Charts: Did Seattle defund the police?

caption: Illustration of police hat against backdrop. Assets courtesy of Istock.
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Illustration of police hat against backdrop. Assets courtesy of Istock.

"Why has Seattle lost so many police officers?" The answer is not that the Seattle Police Department was defunded.

Let's rewind to 2020, when protests following the police murder of George Floyd launched a movement to defund police departments across the U.S. — including Seattle.

Activists called for up to 50% police budget reductions, arguing that savings could be put toward community services. In Seattle, council members made gestures toward reducing police spending and "civilianizing" more public safety services. So, was the police department ultimately defunded?

In one version of the story, yes-ish. Parking enforcement and 911 call center response were moved out of the police department. Restructuring the 911 system has become an important step in many cities' efforts to reduce armed police response to civilians. Dispatchers are the gatekeepers of the criminal justice system: They are tasked with identifying true public safety emergencies and deciding what resources—armed or unarmed—should respond. (Parking enforcement was later moved back into the police department.)

But in another version of the story, no. While the police department lost a little over 10% of its budget between 2020 and 2021 (mostly because 911 dispatch and parking enforcement were moved), it has been closing that gap since.

Tellingly, not a single sworn officer has lost their job or pay due to budget constraints. In fact, the department has consistently received more funding for hiring than it can spend. And yet, the myth that the police department was defunded persists, partly because budgets are convoluted and boring, and because it's an easy answer for the police departments' woes.

KUOW combed through years of Seattle budgets to illustrate what happened in five graphics.

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Seattle's police budget makes up nearly a quarter of city funds.

While dollar amounts change, and inflation alters purchasing power, one thing is clear: Seattle always pays its police department. Since before the pandemic or protests, the City of Seattle has consistently given the police department nearly a quarter of its general funds. No other Seattle city department has consistently claimed such a big piece of the pie — or donut in this case.

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A better question may be, "How is the money being spent?"

Following Covid and the protests, the city made an effort to "civilianize" the police department by transferring out services that didn't require a sworn officer response. This exodus included parking enforcement to the transportation department, emergency management to a new department, and mental health providers serving on the Seattle Police Department crisis response unit—along with a few victims advocates—to the human services department.

But the biggest change was the transfer of 911 call operations to a newly formed department. The Council took a more hands-on approach to the police budget, adding a proviso that requires the police department to get approval from the Council before spending unused salary savings on other things.

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Some of the bigger changes happen at the edges—in how units are organized and in administrative spaces. Collaborative Policing, which includes the Alternative Response Team, Crisis Intervention Response Team, and the Community Service Officer program, is currently being reorganized, according to Mayor Bruce Harrell’s office.

The chief of police's office saw its budget more than double in 2023. The office includes the chief, deputy chief, chief of staff, and chief legal officer, as well as the public affairs and wellness units. It also houses some data and analytics work. In 2023, the chief’s office added nearly $1 million to hire leaders to implement a new relational policing program and the department's mental health and wellness efforts. The office also added one position from another department to help with records requests.

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The real change is not about dollars at all

It's hard to say how big an impact such budget changes have when the biggest shift Seattle's police have seen is not in funding, but in staffing. As of January 2024, Seattle has roughly one deployable officer for every 860 Seattleites, the lowest level since the 1990s.

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By the police department’s own accounting, it lost over 600 officers since the pandemic and protests, and has been unable to fill vacancies year after year, despite $30,000 hiring bonuses for lateral transfers in 2023.

Covid may have accelerated this trend, but attrition and hiring issues predate the pandemic. In the 2019 budget, Council approved over $700,000 for hiring incentives, citing the police department's difficulty filling positions.

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Where do these numbers come from?

The graphics in this article are based on the City of Seattle's adopted budgets and budget committee reports from 2018-2024. Where possible, KUOW has used adopted numbers (funding provided by the city), over actual numbers (money spent by the department) to more accurately reflect the intentions of city lawmakers. All total budget numbers are focused on general fund contributions and do not include grants and other appropriations to the police department. Seattle population numbers were taken from the Office of Financial Management and the latest census. All percentages have been rounded to the nearest whole number and may not add up to 100%.

The officer graphics use deployable, funded, and filled sworn officer numbers from official budget documents and the police department's quarterly staffing updates. Deployable refers to the number of fully trained police officers not on extended leave, and is subject to change at any time.

The shield graphic uses the following category descriptions:

  • Patrol: All patrol operations and budgets for individual precincts (West, North, South, East, and Southwest).
  • Administration and Operations: A combination of leadership, administration, the Chief of Police's office, and various administrative operations. This category includes human resources, business support, finance and planning, grants and contracts, fleet and facilities management, technology, telephone reporting, data-driven policing programs, training programs, and the Audit, Policy, and Research Program.
  • Investigations: All criminal investigation units, including Coordinated Criminal Investigations, Major Investigations, Special Victims, and Violent Crimes.
  • Special Operations: Bureau that deploys specialized response units in emergencies and disasters. This includes crowd control, special events work, search, hostage, crisis, and marine-related support.
  • Collaborative Policing: A combination of departments intended to work with the community, including the Community Service Officers program, Navigation team, and Crisis Intervention Response Team.
  • Oversight: A combination of the Office of Police Accountability—charged with investigating and processing complaints involving officers—and the Compliance and Professional Standards Bureau that investigates and reviews use of force issues.


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