We must (gradually) defund the Spokane Police Department

The unjust killing of George Floyd by the Minneapolis Police Department has rightly caused a groundswell of anger and frustration across the United States, which has manifested itself through at least 350 large, peaceful demonstrations in all 50 states. Protesters have expressed a variety of demands, but fundamentally, they center the right of black, brown, and indigenous Americans to exist in public space without fear or terrorization.

As we saw with Amy Cooper’s racist 9-1-1 call in New York, public space is inherently racialized. It’s our job as urbanists to advocate for fundamental change.

Spokane is not at all immune to these challenges. Spokane Police Department has a long-standing history of violence and unjust use of force, and continues to disproportionately use force in low-income neighborhoods and against black, brown, indigenous, and disabled Spokanites. Our community has been advocating for reform and change for years.

And yet, just months ago, an officer knelt on a citizen’s neck during an arrest in a similar manner to the way that former Minneapolis Police officer Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd. The Spokane Police Guild continues to hamstring independent oversight, and last year, members of the department shouted death threats at a citizen during an arrest. And that’s just a start.

Clearly, long-standing calls for change have not been enough. We need to dramatically recommit to the cause of abolition and decarceration right here in Spokane. In this short piece, I’ve collected a few ways we could get started.

1: Reject any police contract that violates the City Charter

Over the past several years, the Spokane Police Guild has been negotiating with the City of Spokane on a new contract. These talks began with former Mayor Condon, and have continued under Mayor Woodward. Unfortunately, according to reports, the currently agreed-upon draft does not include reforms which are required under the City Charter. Mayor Woodward has already signed off on this Charter-violating contract, and City Council could consider it as soon as this month.

This is wlldly unacceptable.

Given continued reports of SPD’s unjust use of force, we need real police transparency and oversight, yesterday. A contract with anything less than what Spokane residents have already approved is anti-democratic and should be rejected by Council outright.

Email City Council and Mayor Woodward and tell them: #NoOversightNoContract.

2: Ensure coronavirus relief funds go to human needs, not jails

According to reporting from The Spokesman-Review, the Board of County Commissioners is considering using federal CARES Act dollars to fund expansion of the Spokane County Jail. For background, the County received this allocation of nearly $90 million to help people with their health, housing, and critical financial needs. Other communities nationwide are using this money to fund things like rent relief, healthcare assistance, and microgrants for small local businesses and nonprofits.

Instead, County Commissioners, Al French, Josh Kerns, and Mary Kuney are considering using it to instead lock up more of its vulnerable citizens by expanding the jail.

We can stop this, but we need to take action now.

Write to your County Commissioners. You can use this easy form to send your message.

Demand that they use our CARES Act relief dollars to fund housing and rent support, community-based healthcare, and relief for small locally-owned businesses, all with an emphasis on equity and justice. Demand that they take funding the jail and policing off of the table entirely. Demand that they instead dramatically reduce the size of the Spokane County Jail by vastly expanding mental health, drug, and diversion courts, expanding community supervision, and prioritizing violent offenders for jail time.

3: Gradually defund the Spokane Police Department

Across the country, cities and municipalities are experiencing significant budget shortfalls due to losses in revenue as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. While Congress should absolutely step in to provide assistance, it would be unwise to rely on this possibility. Local leaders are already planning for inevitable cuts.

Unfortunately, as so often occurs in this situation, it is quite possible that expensive-but-vital services like human services will bear the brunt of cuts. Community-based mental health, housing, homeless services, and education are vital public services for vulnerable local residents who also happen to be most likely to cycle through our criminal justice system. In other words, these are vital, lifesaving services which increase public safety.

Our Police Department, on the other hand, has a demonstrated history of unjust use of force, misconduct violations, violence against disabled people, running over bicyclists, racial bias, training to kill instead of protect, and a generally toxic culture.

We suggest an easy solution. The city should balance any COVID-19-related revenue shortfalls by cutting from the Police Department first, and Human Services last. And then in the long-term, we should continue this mindset as we think about alternative models for community safety which prioritize democracy, mental health, housing, jobs, and education––not police and jails.

The General Fund Budget from 2020 illustrates the disparity in funding between human services and the Police. It’s time we invested in community-based alternatives to policing. Note that the “Police” line adds up several different police-related General Fund line items found in the City’s Program Budget Tool.

Abolition may seem radical for Spokane, but let me be clear: it is not! As organizers in Minneapolis state, “crime isn’t random. Most of the time, it happens when someone has been unable to meet their basic needs through other means. By shifting money away from the police and toward services that actually meet those needs, we’ll be able to get to a place where people won’t need to rob banks.” Of course, in this long transition, “we may need a small specialized class of public servants whose job it is to respond to violent crimes,” but right now, we ask cops to solve too many of our problems, from mental health to homelessness to poverty. What if, instead of sending a police officer to help a distressed individual, we could just send a social worker? What if, instead of sending a police officer to clear a homeless encampment, we could just send a housing advocate?

As MPD 150, these Minneapolis organizers argue, “to really ‘fight crime,’ we don’t need more cops; we need more jobs, more educational opportunities, more arts programs, more community centers, more mental health resources, and more of a say in how our own communities function.” We wholeheartedly agree.

Email City Council and Mayor Woodward today to demand that to address the short-term budget crisis, we cut from SPD before cutting any vital human services. And then in the long-term, we should work beyond reform toward abolition.

We can get through both the COVID-19 pandemic and the pandemic of police violence, but unless we want to be having this conversation again after the next unjust use of force, we need to be bold. These possible actions could get us there.