Lisa Daugaard never expected to find herself supporting a proposal to hire more Seattle cops. The director of the Public Defender Association cut her teeth defending activists arrested during Seattle’s infamous World Trade Organization protests in 1999. During her career, the cops have usually been her adversaries.
She’s chilled out a bit in recent years. Daugaard now co-chairs the Community Police Commission, an advisory body that came into being as part of SPD’s 2012 settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice over brutal and possibly racist practices. And while she’s still pushing hard for police reform, Daugaard has shifted posture from destroyer to builder. She’s less interested now in the well-established facts of all that’s wrong with Seattle’s Finest and more concerned with the half-technical, half-philosophical question of how to fix them.
And, she’s concluded, fixing the police force means adding officers.
That could be a controversial stance. #BlockTheBunker—the movement that recently postponed the city’s plan to spend $160 million on a new North Seattle police precinct through repeated, raucous City Hall demonstrations—has turned its attention to police funding and is demanding that city leaders renege on plans to add another 200 police officers to the city’s force. On Monday—with protesters kept outside—Mayor Ed Murray presented his proposed budget to the Council, kicking off two months of negotiations before the budget is finalized at the end of November. That is where the question of police staffing, and the underlying question of how much police help or hurt public safety, will be addressed in terms of actual investment—and where Daugaard will make her unexpected case.
“I did not used to think this, but I have come to believe from watching it happen that it is possible to radically recast the role of police officers in our society,” says Daugaard. “Just because somebody is a police officer doesn’t mean they have to do the job the way it was done under ‘broken windows’ ” or other instances of oppressive policing, she says. While she remains critical of Seattle police in some ways—highlighting, in particular, their penchant for overpolicing peaceful protests—Daugaard’s position is that if we’re gonna have cops, they ought to be adequately staffed.
“Seattle has enormous gaps in police responsiveness to legitimate community needs,” Daugaard says. “One of the ways in which communities of color have been disadvantaged is the systemic denial of equal protection in the sense of equal access to policing services,” she says. “People of color are disproportionately the focus of law enforcement, but not of service of law enforcement.”
Nikkita Oliver never expected to hear herself call for more cops, either. So far, that prediction has been borne out. Just recently, the antiracist attorney/organizer joined #BlockTheBunker activists occupying Council chambers, where she lambasted the Council for its reluctance to listen to critics of police expansion.
But it’s not just listening she wants. She also wants change—a radical “transformation” of how our society handles public safety. “The institution of policing is inherently problematic,” she says, pointing to data showing that police disproportionately hurt people of color. “Adding more cops … just adds more people to keep doing what they’ve been doing,” she says—that is, killing and brutalizing black people, among other things.
“I do not believe we need police,” Oliver says.
#BlockTheBunker organizers Rashad Barber and Bypolar (a well-known activist who does not go by his legal name) similarly argue that police are not broken, they’re just bad, period. “Police tend to stand in opposition to actually treating people,” says Bypolar, who says that he’s been viciously abused by police as both a child and adult. #BlockTheBunker, Barber says, doesn’t think that “adding more police is a solution to community safety; it is actually going to hinder creating more safe communities” by sending a soldier to do a social worker’s job.
The basic demand of #BlockTheBunker activists is this: Divest from police and prisons and invest that money in communities via housing and community-controlled social services. Investing upstream will prevent poverty in the first place, they say, which is the real source of crime and disorder.
Councilmember Sally Bagshaw says activists are misguided. “They just don’t know what kind of work we’re doing, and so they’re imagining the worst,” she says. Shutting down Council meetings, she says, “doesn’t do anybody any good. It may make the protesters feel empowered, but it doesn’t help us legislate, doesn’t help us run the city.” Daugaard is also skeptical. “If we were … to ‘privatize’ the function of ensuring public safety in response to crime,” she told me, “who ensures that those services are provided equally? And if they’re not, then who’s going to fix them?”
To Oliver, this kind of criticism insinuates that poor communities just aren’t competent to organize their own public-safety responses. “They don’t think we know what we’re talking about,” she says, referring to city leaders who pooh-pooh local autonomy.