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caption: Protesters have established a food co-op, a community garden, medical stations, a speaker's stage, movie nights, book exchanges, and round-the-clock security patrols. They see their camp as a prototype for a self-reliant, safe enclave that doesn't need police.
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Protesters have established a food co-op, a community garden, medical stations, a speaker's stage, movie nights, book exchanges, and round-the-clock security patrols. They see their camp as a prototype for a self-reliant, safe enclave that doesn't need police.
Credit: Jim Urquhart for NPR

Mayor Durkan on protests and Seattle Police

Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan responds to the calls for her resignation and tells us how she wants to reform the Seattle Police department.

This is an edited transcript of the conversation between Bill Radke and Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan on Thursday, June 18, 2020.

Let's start with the protester occupied zone on Capitol Hill. Your police department went in and reduced the size of the zone, or your transportation department. The city moved some barriers to let in more traffic. Are you satisfied now with the situation in the zone or do you plan to confront protesters in any other way?

I think that we have to focus on two things here. First is, the right to protest, to peacefully assemble and to express disagreement with the government, is one of the most cherished rights we have as Americans. And place-based protests are as old as our country are, and certainly a part of the Seattle history.

So I think that when we're talking about the few blocks on Capitol Hill, we worked very hard to make sure that there could be access for all residents and businesses, take into mind public safety, but also give space for people to continue to raise their voices about the issues that are such great concern to people here in Seattle and across this country about the need to dismantle systemic racism.

And when they're raising their voices on Capitol Hill, what are you hearing those voices say? What is your take on specifically what protesters want from you?

I think it is a range of things, but I fundamentally think it is three important things. First is, we as a society have invested in one system that touches the African American community the most. And that system is our criminal justice system. That's the police, incarceration, the whole system in place. We need to really make sure that that isn't the face of it. And then if we're going to dismantle systemic racism, we have to listen to community and invest in a magnitude we've never invested before in true community wellness. Because from that community wellness really comes public safety. So that means investing in the youth, in good childcare, and education in schools, and systems to disrupt the criminal justice system. We have to be really dismantling each of these institutions that truly have not served communities of color, and particularly the black community in Seattle.

Where are we going to get the money to "invest in a magnitude we've never invested before?"

We will do it from a number of places. We will do both from looking at the budget and reprioritizing money, so we can do that. But I've said before, I think we need new revenue, progressive revenue for the city of Seattle.

We are facing an unprecedented hole in our budget because of Covid and the slowdown in our economy. And this gives us the opportunity to shift from a very regressive taxation system to a more progressive taxation system. So I'm looking forward to talking to Council member Mosqueda about her proposal. I'm talking with people about other proposals. And not just at the city level. We need to do at the city level, regionally, and at the state level.

Hannah in Eastlake: My question is how Jenny Durkan can claim that she is for the protests and for free speech on social media and then on this radio program, while she has said that she won't defund the police, which is the main if not only demand of the protests. The demands are to defund the police by at least 50% - they're painted on the side of the East Precinct -- to invest in black and brown communities, and then to free the protesters. You're claiming these protests, while people are out protesting to have you out of office.

Absolutely, there has to be a defund part of this. I think what you're saying, I've been asked whether I believe that 50% is appropriate. I don't think we can get there based on what I know about the budget being 80% personnel. And that even community members I've spoken with, do not want to eliminate half the police. But we're going to look at the budget. We'll look at what a 20%, a 30%, and a 50% cut looks like. We're going to make sure that I can understand, the council can understand, the public understands., and at the same time, we also have to invest.

So I've said we will cut the budget. But more importantly, we're going to reinvent how we do policing in Seattle, and we're seeing this movement across the country. We've started on that process in the last two years, but we have to do more. We want to make sure that when someone dials 911, we are more innovative than just having an armed police officer show up.

If it's a mental health emergency or healthcare emergency, we need someone with training that may be able to respond to those things. We also need people with strong community ties to prevent the call from having to happen in the first place. So we're going to be looking to reinvent how we do policing. And we did that with our Health One system where, we saw time and time again, the police officers were responding in the downtown core to people with significant behavioral health issues, often experiencing homelessness. And police only have one tool and that's arrest and jail. We want to send someone else so we created Health One so that when we get those calls, we could have a trained medic and a social worker respond instead, get someone stabilized, get them shelter or housing, get them connected with the services they need. Their model we have to follow, but we have to scale it to the size of this crisis and that's going to take all of us together.

You're saying no to a 50% budget cut? Do you have a number in mind that you're proposing?

No and Bill, we're going to be looking at the budget to see what all those would do, both to, if we change how we do policing, what can what can we shift from the traditional police department, other individuals, other types of services? And then what budget do we need to do the traditional policing? So we will be looking at the full range and making that transparent to the public and to the council and to have a conversation about whether that's forward.

I don't want to prejudge what the budget is, I think the budget has to follow the values. What do we want the police department to do? And I was talking to a community member, and to Chief Best and I said, I bet if you put a lot of community members at one table, and police officers another table, and said make a list of the things that police do today that someone else should be doing, those lists would be very similar. Because we've put more and more on the plate of police officers that really don't belong there. They belong with a community, with mental health providers, with health care providers. And first and foremost of providing wellness in a community so you don't need that kind of assistance from government. And that's schools, and health, and education, opportunity, and strong community based organizations.

You mentioned your police chief. She said that she's angry regarding the Capitol Hill protest occupied zone. She says, "While I really support first amendment free speech, this is not it." She made a video to her officers that she knew we would all see, where she said, it wasn't my decision to vacate that East Precinct building. That it was an insult to the police force. Was it your decision to vacate that building?

No, and Bill, we put out a joint statement together, Chief Best and I. The day that we decided to remove the barriers, it was clear that those barriers were the flashpoint and we saw night after night, protests degenerate into an escalating series of violence. We knew we had to change the dynamic. We needed to deescalate that with time and with distance. After consulting with the Chief, I made the decision to remove those barriers and she agreed with that decision. Once that decision was made, there was a cascading series of events because they still believed the precinct could be at risk. They needed to go in and remove all the confidential information, equipment, guns, ammunition.

The original plan was to leave police officers on site and to create a barrier further away from the precinct. But when the commander got on site, and things evolved that determined they could not do that in that way, and it was the scene commander from the police department who made the decision that people would leave the precinct but they would be stationed nearby with Fire, should they be needed. It was a very involving operational decision. I think it was the right decision.

And the most important thing now going forward is is how do we continue to have some time and distance so we as a city can really evaluate where are we and how do we move forward. And I think it's an incredibly painful time for people. But in this incredibly painful time, we have an unprecedented opportunity in our city to move forward.

The police chief said that she's, "working to get our officers back into the facility." Will you order police back into the precinct building? And how would you do that peacefully? How do you see this resolving?

The Chief and I have had many conversations about that. We are going to continue to talk with community about both what kind of policing we have, what the facilitie's used for, how the police occupy that. And we have learned more than anything, the number one trait we have to have in this period of time is to listen. And I think that we can both provide the public safety necessary for the East Precinct in the city of Seattle, and the opportunity for people to raise their voices, protest and demand better of their government. That's who we are as a society. It is hard, but the more uncomfortable it is for leaders like myself, probably the more important that it be done.

The police chief also said this occupation area is dangerous because it's slowing police response time to emergency calls. The owner of an auto shop nearby on 12th and Olive said police didn't respond to his 911 calls about a break in. Do you agree that this situation is slowing response time? Are residents able to get in and out? Are businesses able to do what they want? Is the status quo ok, or do you feel you need to make changes in the zone?

A lot of questions there. Happy to report that they actually did arrest the person who caused the damage at that auto dealership. And so police are still active and pursuing public safety in the area.

What my view is, is that we have now reduced the footprint of that area, and it's about four blocks. You know, I grew up in this city and Capitol Hill has always been a center for public debate, and for people questioning government, whether it was the gay rights movement, or now the Black Lives movement, to be centered in one of the most dense neighborhoods in Seattle is a reflection of our city recognizing, we need to have those really hard discussions if we want to move forward as a city. Can we bring more order to it? Yes. But can we also learn from it? I mean, if you see some of the changes there, they have really captured, how do we have conversations together? And how do we bring community together? You know, whether it's the garden or the conversation corner or the speaker's corner? All of those things reflect the value of democracies that I think are most dear.

Is democracy messy sometimes? Absolutely. But as I said to someone before, I accidentally said it was Thoreau, but it was Thomas Jefferson, who said, that revolution is as necessary for the political world as a storm is for the natural world. And we have to be willing to have these difficult conversations and sometimes have these events that are incredibly painful, and then find a way to move together to make the changes we need to make as a city and as a country. And I think we can do that.

You agreed with the protesters in spirit when a few minutes ago, you talked about how we don't need police responding nearly as often to mental health crises, behavioral health issues, homelessness issues. Will you remove police from Seattle's navigation team that does outreach to and clears homeless encampments?

I think all of those things are on the table rethinking that. And we've tried to do that in the last two years, really thinking about how do we change from a criminal justice police response model, to a public health model across the board. And whether that's investing more money in programs like Choose 180 to get to youth to really break that cycle in the criminal justice system, or it's investing in closing the opportunity gaps that are high school and two years free college, so that we have a school to opportunity pipeline instead of a school to jail pipeline. So I think we have to be evaluating everything that we do to see through the prism of equity, what do we have to do better? And how do we make it systemic itself? How do we make equity systemic, instead of racism and discrimination? That's got to be the goal.

I saw that your city attorney says that there will be no prosecution of people arrested for misdemeanors during the protest? And what about felonies?

My understanding is that the city attorney is going to review for each of those charges, the body cam, to see what the circumstances are, but try to either dismiss or divert them to programs like Choose 180. And I think that's appropriate results.

I know Dan Satterberg is looking at his cases as well. I think the people who were actually setting fire to cars, breaking in and looting places maybe fall in a different category than others. But as you know, the mayor doesn't control who gets charged and who gets released.

Some advocates for police accountability say that you ignored the Community Police Commission two years ago when they rejected the contract that you and the city bargained with the Police Officers Guild, they said this contract would make it harder to discipline officers, restrict civilian oversight. The federal judge criticized that contract. Do you stand by that contract still?

I think that contract made some important moves forward in accountability. And remember, of all the issues that the Community Police Commission wanted bargained, were technically not on the table when I came in because of state labor laws. But we did.

One of the biggest things we did was we got the Office of Inspector General staffed and funded, which is now going to be one of the critical bodies that is going to be able to review independently, everything that's happened in these protests by police and make recommendations about what we have to change system wise, together with the CPC and OPA, they'll be reviewing in depth, both individual officer actions and the department action. I think we've got to empower these oversight boards and let them do their jobs.

We'll be back at the table and I've already promised a number of folks that we're gonna be really engaging community meaningfully, again, to see what is their highest priority moving forward in a in a contract with the Seattle Police Department.

Well, here's an example of where in general, you're agreeing with protesters and activists wanting to change the department, except you've been the mayor for a while. And when it gets to the specifics, you know, you backed this contract that these same activists are saying makes it harder to discipline officers, harder to to hold police accountable, harder to see which officers have been a problem. And so, you know, I guess I'm asking, the where were you. You're talking about police reform...

Parts of that are actually not accurate. The contract did not make it harder to discipline officers. And it did not make it less accountable. There were things that the public wanted, that the union didn't agree to. And under state and federal law, they have to, but we're gonna be looking for different parameters around the bargaining table, particularly around the area of discipline.

We told the court almost a year ago that our priorities for bargaining were going to be just that. So we, over the last many months have said, when we get back to the table, we're going to make those same things a priority. It's going to be around discipline, around the authority for the oversight committees to have subpoena or other power. And we told people that's going to be on the table.

But there's other things that I've heard in the last two weeks that the community, it is important to them, that their voices haven't necessarily been heard in the process before. While the CPC and the city council before I became mayor did extensive work on this, there's many people in the community who felt their voices weren't heard as well. So we want to listen to everybody, have a deep engagement process, and make sure that as we go to bargaining the next time, we have the full ability and authority we need to get the contract. That may also require a change in state laws so that the Chief can have more disciplinary power, so that if she fires a cop, there isn't the easy way to overturn that through an arbitration.

I've got to ask about the city council voting unanimously to ban the use of tear gas blast balls and similar less lethal crowd control methods. Your Police Chief Carmen best said without tear gas, then we're quote, we're back to buttons and devices like that. And she doesn't want that. So will you sign all these measures?

We've got a lot of moving pieces there. First, the ACLU sued the city over the tools that were used during the protests, the tear gas and the like. And Judge Jones has entered a restraining order requiring us to do certain things and not use certain measures. And if we haven't moved in court, we want to make that order, extend that order until there is a review done by the civilian oversight groups, again OPA, CPC, and the OIG are looking at these very issues and want to bring back recommendations. I think it's really important that we empower those independent bodies to do their job. And so I've met with them and told them that we will provide any resources they need and that we expect a fully independent and thorough review.

We also have an order by the Federal Court Judge Robart, that approved a crowd management policy that was crafted under the previous administration, drafted together with the CPC, the City Council, and the federal monitor, and then approved by the judge. That needs to be reviewed as well.

So we will be providing that back to the judge. So there's a whole range of things. What the council has passed is already the law in place and we're going to make sure that stays in place until the civilian oversight authorities have the ability to come back and make recommendations.

Rupali in W. Seattle: My question for you is that as an elected official, we choose you to represent our views in various decisions made throughout the city. One of the responsibilities of being mayor is appointing police chief, so you appointed Chief Best however, the public messaging about the future of police reform in the city has been very different from you and from Chiefs Best. So I'm wondering what plans you have to better align the views that you have and the public have that voted for you with what happens in the future of the police department.

I will say that, Chief Best and I have had many conversations about policing and the future of policing even before the last two weeks and I believe there's no one more committed to really having a community based police department than Carmen Best.

She was instrumental in us getting our CSOs back, knowing how important those ties were to community. She is very enthused about reimagining the department and seeing what duties we can take away from officers and hand to different professionals. And she is going to be unabashed and really looking at the crowd management practices, and how we make sure that the deescalation requirements that we have for individual activities are reflected in those policies. We clearly saw that they weren't. And that what happened on Capitol Hill night after night, that we needed to have those same principles of community based communication, deescalation, distance, and time.

And so I will continue to work with City Council, with our oversight partners and with Chief Best to really make sure that going forward that that is rooted in all parts of the culture of the Seattle Police department.

Finally, three city councilors have suggested you resign. I wonder how you react to that?

I think the most important thing that I can do as mayor is to listen to the voices that are being raised in the street. 80,000 people marched silently, but they spoke so loudly. And my job as mayor is to focus on how do we really make sure that we can build enduring change for the next generations in Seattle.

And so I won't get distracted by people's call, whether it's President Trump, or council member, or today it was Karl Rove. My job as mayor is to keep going and making sure that we in the city of Seattle can come together in this time of enormous conflict, in the backdrop of an economic downturn, maybe a depression, and a global pandemic. And use those unprecedented circumstances to say, it is an unprecedented challenging time, but it also gives us unprecedented opportunity to really make change. So that's where I'm going to focus.