Before the murder of George Floyd sparked nationwide protests and calls to defund police departments, homeless advocates were calling on the city of Seattle to depolice the Navigation Team, the controversial group of police and civilian city staffers that removes encampments from public spaces. During a recent encampment removal in the International District, protesters lined up on both ends of a block guarded by dozens of police, live-streaming from just outside the barricades as homeless encampment residents shuffled slowly through.
Now, those advocates may get their wish, as city council member Tammy Morales cues up legislation that would remove cops from the team and refocus its efforts on outreach and services, not law enforcement. The legislation, which is still in draft form, would remove funding for any police presence on the Navigation Team. This would be a major policy and financial shift, since the city currently spends $2.6 million a year providing full-time police officers for the team, but it no longer seems as radical as it did even two weeks ago, when Police Chief Carmen Best insisted that encampments were so inherently dangerous that they required an armed response.
The Navigation Team, formed in 2017 under former mayor Ed Murray, was originally supposed to navigate people living in encampments to safer shelter, housing, and other services. To reflect this, the city adopted rules requiring the team to provide advance notice and offers of appropriate shelter to every person living in an encampment before removing it. Under Durkan, however, the team has shifted its focus, using a loophole in the rules that allows the immediate removal of any encampment that constitutes an “obstruction” to public use of a space. Because the term “obstruction” is ill-defined, Durkan’s Navigation Team has interpreted it to include any encampment in any part of a public park or other public space, a definition that encompasses most encampments.
Every year she has been in office, Durkan has expanded the number of police officers on the team. The council is currently doing an “inquest” of the police department’s budget in light of calls to defund the police and an estimated 2020 revenue shortfall of more than $300 million.
Durkan has paid lip service to the idea that police are not appropriate in every circumstance, but has not expanded those thoughts to apply specifically to her own police department. Similarly, her comments about the protests happening in her own city, against her own police department and administration, have mostly been vague and nationally focused, a strategy that has enabled her to grab nationwide headlines for anti-Trump sound bites while refusing to respond directly to protesters’ detailed demands at home.
On Friday, the mayor finally joined a protest for Black lives, nearly two weeks after other mayors across the country began doing so. The massive march, tens of thousands of people strong, was completely silent, which means that it was also the only march so far in which Durkan would not hear protesters shouting demands—chief among them that she defund the police department and invest in communities that have been victims of disinvestment and police violence.
The public knows about the mayor’s presence at at least some portion of the march because her social-media team posted photos of Durkan and police chief Carmen Best walking through the rain on Twitter. The text read: “Today at the @BLMSeattleKC silent march, community walks to abolish the school to prison pipeline, end biased policing, and undo centuries of systemic racism in our country. The march may be silent, but the message is loud and clear: #blacklivesmatter.”
Durkan has consistently attempted to reframe protesters’ demands as primarily national or statewide, not local. But the movement to defund the police—which received a staggering $409 million in last year’s city budget—is moving forward anyway. Last week, the city council held the first meeting in a month-long “inquest” into the police budget, and Durkan held off on sending down her midyear budget revisions in order to make changes that may or may not be responsive to protesters’ demands.
The massive march, tens of thousands of people strong, was completely silent, which means that it was also the only march so far in which Durkan would not hear protesters shouting demands—chief among them that she defund the police department and invest in communities that have been victims of disinvestment and police violence.
Earlier this week, Seattle police made their way back into the East Precinct, which has been unoccupied since Durkan apparently ordered the police to open up the street to protesters and remove all “sensitive items” from the building. Since then an area of a few square blocks around the precinct—known as the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone—has been the site of a 24/7 protest/block party, featuring free food and water stands, community gardens, and a campground in Cal Anderson Park.
Durkan has tried to make the best of the situation, which came about because police set up barricades around the precinct in early June and defended them with force, targeting protesters night after night with tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets, and other weapons. Publicly, she has said the protesters have a right to protest, and joked (rather dismissively) that the area around the precinct could turn into the site of a new “summer of love.”
In contrast, Best has said she was “angry” at the decision to take down the barricades and stop guarding the precinct, telling officers in a “leaked” video (which was posted publicly on the department’s Youtube page half an hour before the first reports about it appeared on local news) that in their absence, “armed guards” had posted up outside the precinct and were demanding money and identification from anyone who wanted to enter.
Best later walked these comments back, admitting that she had heard about them “anecdotally” and from social media—quite a turnaround for a chief who, just one week earlier, had asserted, “Social media is social media. It’s not news.”
At a press conference last week, there was an awkward moment when a reporter asked Best and Durkan whether they had confidence in each other. Best paused for a moment before responding, “Yes, I do. I’m standing here right next to her.” Durkan said that neither she nor the chief planned to resign and made a joke about having a “Thelma and Louise moment” with the chief—an odd reference, given that the two characters drove off a cliff because they were being chased by cops.
Despite this demurral, the fault lines between the chief and the mayor—who is up for reelection next year—have continued to grow. It’s worth remembering that Durkan did not want to hire Best in the first place, and did so only after community outcry over her decision to eliminate the only local candidate, and the only black woman on the list of contenders, from consideration. Whether the reason for the schism between the mayor and her police chief is based on real policy disagreements or political considerations, it’s increasingly obvious to anyone paying attention. And whether Durkan is angling for reelection or a federal appointment under Biden, it’s increasingly clear that she wants to distance herself from a police chief who continues to insist that her police force has nothing to examine or apologize for.