Budgets are a reflection of our values, and the money we budget for the police is no exception. Our state and local budgets for what we call “safety” are not getting outcomes that reflect our morals. Seattle-area King County Councilmember Girmay Zahilay joins Nick and Jessyn to lay out five policies elected officials should be pledging to support right now to re-imagine public safety.

Girmay Zahilay is a member of the King County Council from District 2. He is an attorney, non-profit founder, and organizer.

Twitter: @GirmayZahilay

Further reading:

City council will consider defunding Seattle Police: https://crosscut.com/2020/06/city-council-will-consider-defunding-seattle-police

Washington state’s other epidemic: Mass incarceration: https://crosscut.com/2020/03/washington-states-other-epidemic-mass-incarceration

Defund the police? Here’s what that really means: https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/06/07/defund-police-heres-what-that-really-means/

Website: http://pitchforkeconomics.com/

Twitter: @PitchforkEcon

Instagram: @pitchforkeconomics

Nick’s twitter: @NickHanauer

 

Girmay Zahilay:

When people say redirect funding or defund the police, however you want to phrase it, they’re saying our current funding systems are broken and don’t keep people safe.

Nick Hanauer:

Cities and states and counties spend ginormous amounts of money on policing, and it’s beginning to become clear that these strategies are not working very well.

Jessyn Farrell:

I would bet a lot of people don’t think our budgets, as they’re currently construed, reflect our values.

Speaker 4:

From the offices of Civic Ventures in downtown Seattle, this is Pitchfork Economics with Nick Hanauer. It’s like econ 101 without all the BS.

Nick Hanauer:

I’m Nick Hanauer, founder of Civic Ventures.

Jessyn Farrell:

I’m Jessyn Farrell, and I’m senior vice president at Civic Ventures and a former state legislator.

Nick Hanauer:

Pitchfork Economics is of course a podcast devoted to questions about economics, but today for really obvious reasons, we’re going to take a detour into the even more horrific world of racism and police brutality and its connection, I suppose, to economics in some way.

Jessyn Farrell:

Yeah, and there is obviously a lot of unpacking to do around the protests that have happened over the last several days. They are the culmination of many, many years of decades of activism, but one of the things that is really apparent is that there are communities that are overpoliced, and part of that is because we criminalize poverty. We criminalize things that are an outgrowth and a symptom of not just racism, but income inequality, and as a consequence, black and brown communities, which by design are suffering both economically, but are then also overpoliced because of that relationship.

Nick Hanauer:

Right, and the economic consequences of this are really significant, because cities and states and counties spend just ginormous amounts of money on policing and courts and so on and so forth, and I think it’s beginning to become clear that these strategies are not working very well, and in fact, in many ways the police may be making the circumstances worse or less safe, and it’s certainly not economically efficient, and so that’s a very interesting area to explore and very consequential to how we organize what we do as a society to govern ourselves and to keep one another safe.

Jessyn Farrell:

Yeah, one of the things that’s so striking about this particular moment and these protests, they are very much about police brutality and black communities in particular saying, “No more.” At the same time, one of the policy solutions that has emerged is around defunding police departments and redirecting that funding towards other programs that help people thrive and be healthy, and that’s one of the really interesting things about this moment is that the policy solution that is being talked about and addressed to a certain degree in certain places like Minneapolis and even here in Seattle, is fundamentally about budgets and economics and who pays and who benefits, and I think one of the broad messages is that black and brown communities are not benefiting from these public expenditures and are in fact being greatly harmed, and this moment is certainly around budgets and whether those budgets meet our community values.

Nick Hanauer:

Right, and there’s this really twisted way in which our economic and political policies are intertwined in disadvantaged folks. So you have this economic system which massively disadvantages and exploits folks at the bottom, then we spend a crap load of public funds to criminalize their lives on top of it.

Jessyn Farrell:

Yeah, and then penalize people for the rest of their lives for having been overpoliced and part of the penal system in the first place. All the limits that people have on participating economically because of a felony charge, for example, in their past, all of the ways we limit housing and access to jobs, and so on the face of it, this is an economic podcast and the news has been so much about these protests, but there is a very clear economic story and a story around who participates and who doesn’t participate in decision making and the share of wealth in our community, particularly as we have this criminal justice system that is so massive in certain parts of people’s lives in our community.

Nick Hanauer:

Yeah.

Jessyn Farrell:

Today we are really excited to have King County council member Girmay Zahilay talk to us about policies that he is advancing and supporting to fundamentally transform the police, and King County is where Seattle is and it is also the 12th most populated county in the country. So we are really looking forward to hearing his perspective on what’s been happening over the last several days.

Girmay Zahilay:

Hi everyone. This is Girmay Zahilay. I’m a council member for King County district two.

Nick Hanauer:

So Girmay, why don’t you start with a little bit about your background and the path you took to becoming a King County council member?

Girmay Zahilay:

I guess if we go all the way back, my story starts before I was born. My parents are Ethiopian refugees. They left Ethiopia in the 1980s because there was a war happening. They crossed the border into Sudan and that’s where I and my brother were born, and once I turned three, we boarded a plane and crossed over the Atlantic ocean into the US and I was raised in South Seattle in public housing in South Seattle, went to public schools in South Seattle, proud graduate of Franklin High School and went off to California at Stanford for college. By way of profession, I’m an attorney. I went to a U Penn Law School. I started off by doing antipoverty work and then I interned at the White House for a bit. Then I practiced law in New York and South Seattle, and I ran for public office because I saw all of the current policies and institutions that were working for families like mine in South Seattle.

By the time I left Seattle and came back, South Seattle was a completely different place. It wasn’t a place where all the hardworking people who had working class jobs climbed the economic ladder and were able to buy houses and continue living in the communities where I was raised. It was a place where people were getting displaced and losing their homes and working harder and harder every day and getting less out of it. Young people didn’t have the kinds of opportunities that I would want them to have. So I just felt like having stronger regional policies that prioritize marginalized communities, giving them housing and fighting for climate action and a better criminal justice system, those are all things that I felt like I could affect that could build on the work of all the people who’ve been fighting for those things for so long and that’s why I ran.

Jessyn Farrell:

It’s really great to have you on the council. I mean it’s only been about six months and you’re already emerging as one of the leading voices in this moment, and I’m wondering if you can describe what’s been happening in Seattle, what your constituent’s experiences have been, particularly in this last week, and maybe you can touch a little bit on what happened on Saturday night.

Girmay Zahilay:

It’s been a wild, wild six months. It’s not like we didn’t have any problems before I got into office. We were dealing with a homelessness crisis, a climate crisis, a region where the wealthy have been getting wealthier and wealthier and the poor have been getting poorer and poorer, and Nick and Jessyn, I know you’ve been big advocates on progressive taxation and closing that gap, and then you get into office thinking that those are the problems that we’re going to address, and of course it’s just new crisis after new crisis after new crisis. It’s been crazy, and there are some people who don’t really see the connection between COVID-19 and what happened to George Floyd. I think those are two very similar dynamics. Those are generations of unjust and unsustainable policies impacting marginalized communities, black and brown communities, and playing out with death of a black individual, George Floyd, or death of countless black and brown people at the hands of a virus that disproportionately affects us, and so that’s what I’ve been seeing play out, an unsustainable society and the masses that no longer want to live under these conditions and people are rising up. That’s what played out on Capitol Hill on Saturday night. It was incredible and powerful to see.

Jessyn Farrell:

To set the scene for people who didn’t see the live stream, it was very dramatic.

Girmay Zahilay:

Absolutely. I’ll take you through it through my own eyes. I was celebrating a friend’s birthday at their home, masks on, physically distanced. Don’t call me out. It was the first time where I was like, “Man, I’m finally going to do normal things.” I was about to cut the cake and then I get a call saying, “Yo, stuff is going down in Capitol Hill. Please get down here, bring as many elected officials as you can, because things are escalating and we need people to deescalate and bring peace.” So I got in my car and rushed over to Capitol Hill and I just see what felt like hundreds of people on one side and then police on the other side, but the dynamic was just so incredible. I mean to see that many, what looked like to me, peaceful protesters, people calling for justice, people who are angry and demanding better, of course, but at the same time, they were passing out water to one another, they were passing out earplugs for one another because the police were using some sound blast tactic. They were passing out sanitizer and masks to each other.

It was really a bunch of people taking care of one another. I saw teenagers just displaying a kind of brilliance that I didn’t see when I was in high school, where they were able to articulate how several types of systems have been failing us in our country, and I interviewed them and I interviewed doctors and just heard what they’ve been saying, and then you look on the other side of the line. I say that to provide contrast. On one side, you see people taking care of one another, and on the other side, I just see what looks like a militarized police force, riot gear, shields, batons for beating people. You look on the tops of buildings and you see more officers on the tops of buildings, and I saw pictures later where there were what appeared to be assault rifles or some kind of weapons that they had on the roof, and it’s just a site that will stick with me probably for the rest of my life, because I see what the protesters have been saying and that is that our police forces are not the kinds of public safety systems that we want to see right now.

Nick Hanauer:

You have been in dialogue with your constituents and folks from across our community about what to do about all of this, and you have sort of evolved, I believe it is, sort of five planks or pillars of policies that you pledge to support. Can you take us through what those are?

Girmay Zahilay:

Absolutely. So once the protests started a couple of weeks ago, at least this recent wave of protests, I got on Instagram and Facebook and asked the community, “What kind of solutions do you want to see? Email us those,” because what we as elected officials need to do is channel this energy and momentum from the protests into concrete policy changes, and hundreds of people emailed us and we went through those and we created the five that we saw most frequently, and they also happen to be five that are backed up by the data as reducing police violence. Those five that I have pledged to pursue and that I’ve been asking other elected officials to pursue as well are number one, demilitarize the police, number two, further restrict use of excessive or deadly force by police, number three, increase accountability and transparency in police union contracts and that negotiation process, number four, give subpoena and other investigative powers to independent oversight boards, and number five, redirect police department funding to community based alternatives, and number five is the one that we have been hearing … I’m sure you all have been hearing it as well … most consistently.

Nick Hanauer:

Yeah. It’s worth diving, I think, into that one in particular to make it clear that when people are talking about defunding the police, they’re raising, I think, a very legitimate question about whether the way in which we have approached public safety and made guys running around with guns as the only mechanism we have for sort of addressing these things. I mean I think it’s really important to step back and just say, “Does that make any sense?”

Girmay Zahilay:

You know, it’s a survival strategy for the black people who have been calling for it, because let’s name a few of the instances where unarmed black people have been killed by police. Noise complaints. “Hey police, can you come check on my neighbor? I haven’t heard from them in awhile.” Traffic stops. These are all things that don’t require someone with a gun to show up to do. When people say defund police, they’re not saying promote lawlessness and eliminate accountability. They’re saying our current system is fundamentally flawed. Let’s rethink public safety altogether in one that is rooted in community based solutions and economic justice and really meeting the challenges that we see with responses that are tailored to those needs rather than this one size fits all, somebody with a gun show up.

Nick Hanauer:

Right, and of course the cycle of poverty that generates so much of these challenges is the cause of them, and people think it’s a really complicated thing to solve that. It’s really not. It’s super simple. Just require companies to pay people enough so they can live in security and dignity and then you don’t need so many police.

Girmay Zahilay:

True. True. Economic justice is a huge, huge part of this. We’re seeing a country where people are working harder, getting less out of it, and that’s a huge part of it.

Nick Hanauer:

Right.

Jessyn Farrell:

Girmay, one of the things that people have been talking a lot about is the difference between this continuum of reform and defending and abolition. Can you talk a little bit about what you might say to people who are arguing that reform will still solve all the problems of the police force and maybe what in this pledge is more reform oriented versus defunding and fundamental transformation?

Girmay Zahilay:

Yeah. This is a conflict that I feel all the time. I absolutely want a transformational change, and that’s what my constituents and so many people around the country have been asking for and that’s what I’m going to keep fighting for. At the same time, when you’re a council member, you’re a one of nine. So you need votes to do transformational change, and in the meantime, if you don’t have those votes, I think it’s also important to simultaneously fight for the reforms that are going to, I believe, save lives and hold people accountable in the short term. So that’s why some of my pledges are some of the more incremental reform strategies. Just recently we introduced legislation. A prime sponsor was a council member, Rod Dembowski, and I co-sponsored, along with some of my colleagues. We introduced legislation to give our law enforcement oversight board a subpoena power, which would actually give them the proper investigative power to hold people accountable rather than allowing just internal investigations where there are conflicts of interest abound. Something like that is definitely one of these incremental reform changes. At the same time, it’s something that we can do right now and pass immediately, and that I think is a good thing, without losing sight of the bigger goals that we have to keep fighting for it.

Jessyn Farrell:

One of the things that strikes me in the defunding conversation is that embedded in it is this really hopeful sense that budgets are reflections of our values and that police budget should reflect our values around helping people and providing the things that people need to thrive, as opposed to those things that endanger and harm people. Can you talk a little bit about what redirecting police department funding might look like?

Girmay Zahilay:

I’ll give you one specific example. We have a fund called the mental illness and drug dependency fund here in King County, and this is a fund that goes to support programs like mental health crisis officers who are able to provide the support that people in crisis need. That fund is tied to a very volatile revenue source in sales tax. COVID-19 comes through. People are not out shopping and spending money anymore. That sales tax revenue plummets. Now that mental health and drug dependency fund plummets as well. Suddenly we don’t have the support we need for our neighbors who are in crisis. What happens to public safety? What happens to those individuals that need support? When Nick was talking about fixing our tax structure, that is directly connected to public safety. So when people say redirect funding or defund the police, however you want to phrase it, they’re saying our current systems, our current funding systems are broken and don’t keep people safe. If we’re able to fund those properly and not rely on police for people who are going through a mental health crisis, that would be good for everybody.

Jessyn Farrell:

Our local and county and state budgets are massively skewed towards police and “safety”, as opposed to those things that really allow people to thrive and be healthy: health and human services, education, early learning, all of that kind of thing, and it strikes me that, again, to the extent that a budget is really an explanation of what we believe and value, I would bet a lot of people don’t think our budgets as they’re currently construed reflect our values.

Girmay Zahilay:

I will tell you, Jessyn, that of King County’s general fund, which is multiple billions of dollars, 72% of that goes to our criminal legal systems. So almost three quarters to our criminal legal systems, which as you know, is law enforcement, jails, courts.

Jessyn Farrell:

Yeah. So that’s just astounding, that number. That’s really astounding, 72%.

Nick Hanauer:

Yeah, just for purposes of argument, if King County is spending the same amount as SPD, and you halved the amount that we currently spend on sort of conventional policing and took the other $400 million and funneled it into … imagine a new force of people who were social and healthcare workers and mediators and whoever, a team of people who are much better trained to deescalate these problems and to provide services to the folks that they encounter, rather than just busting them and throwing them in jail.

Girmay Zahilay:

Absolutely.

Nick Hanauer:

It’s hard to believe that that wouldn’t work better.

Girmay Zahilay:

Right.

Nick Hanauer:

I guess I definitely think that it’s worth a try.

Girmay Zahilay:

Yeah, absolutely, and the housing providers will also tell you that once you provide permanent, stable, safe housing for people, all those other issues almost go away on their own.

Nick Hanauer:

Right.

Jessyn Farrell:

You know, as we’re talking about redirecting and defunding and investing in these things that create healthy, thriving communities, it really makes me pause and consider how much this particular fight gets at the heart of money and power in our system, and this 400 year old arrangement that is deeply racist, and can you talk a little bit about how you see this fight unfolding and some of the broad players and what needs to happen to really get to a place where the way we invest in our communities reflects our values?

Girmay Zahilay:

First of all, I had an interview last week where somebody asked me, “What makes you hopeful?” And what makes me hopeful is all of the people who are taking to the street right now. I grew up in South Seattle and this past weekend, the organizers who organized the South Seattle March for Black Lives, that was one of the most beautiful sights I’ve ever seen. I was in Otello Park in South Seattle, seeing what felt like 10,000 people in one place in the park, all raising their solidarity fists, their black power fists together, shouting, “Black lives matter.” I think that’s how change is created, when tens of thousands or even millions across the country stand up and say, “This is unacceptable. We need a new way of doing things,” and holding all of their elected officials accountable to that, and the things that we thought could never happen are starting to happen right now.

I’m sure you both are aware of what happened in Minneapolis, the city council, where a veto proof majority said they are going to completely move away from their current system of policing to a new system of public safety. That is almost unheard of. So many people couldn’t even fathom that happening in a major city like Minneapolis, and now that there’s precedent for that, it’s not just going to be some pie in the sky dream, but something that’s actually possible, and that’s possible because of all the organizers, all the protesters, all the young people around the country saying that there’s a better way of doing this.

Nick Hanauer:

So let’s talk for a minute about accountability, because I think that that’s another really, really important part of all of this, and you may recall that we were pretty deeply involved in the deescalate campaign last year, which lowered the legal threshold required to charge and convict a police officer, but I think we need to go so much farther, and as pro union as I am, it cannot escape even the most progressive person that police unions have not been the friend of progressive reform in this way.

Girmay Zahilay:

Yeah.

Nick Hanauer:

And the police obviously have a very hard job, but they should be held to a higher standard than ordinary citizens in terms of the use of force, not a lower standard. I can’t go out and whack a person and be like, “Well, I was scared.”

Girmay Zahilay:

Yeah.

Jessyn Farrell:

Girmay, Is there anything that you didn’t get a chance to say or something that we should be thinking about over these next few weeks, what folks like us can be doing and people who are listening?

Girmay Zahilay:

I think holding elected officials accountable to a specific plan is really important. Whenever really terrible things like this happen, like the murder of George Floyd or whatever it might be, you get a lot of elected officials who make value statements and say, “I care about this,” or, “This is bad,” but they need to be pressed to provide their plan, and the more people invite them to Zoom panels and interviews and news reporters ask them the tough questions, the better we’ll be able to hear what they’re actually going to do, and I think that’s the best way that we can hold people accountable to a roadmap to justice. So I think you two, in particular, Jessyn and Nick, you have a really powerful platform. You’re very well respected. The more you can ask that of our leaders, the better I think we’ll all be, and that’s not to say that there haven’t been several elected officials who have not been providing plans. Several of them have been great, but not everyone has, and I think that would be a great use of your influence, and I know you already have been doing that.

Jessyn Farrell:

Message received. Thank you so much, Girmay, for your time. This has really, really been a half hour well spent and we really appreciate everything you’re doing.

Nick Hanauer:

Yeah, yeah.

Girmay Zahilay:

It was great. Thank you so much for having me. I look forward to joining you again in the future.

Nick Hanauer:

Yeah, thanks so much.

Girmay Zahilay:

All right, bye bye.

Nick Hanauer:

So Jessyn, we like to think of Washington state is a pretty progressive place, but our criminal justice approach isn’t anything that you could be super proud of.

Jessyn Farrell:

King County, of course, which is where Seattle sits, one of the most politically liberal places in the country, 72% of the budget, and this was something that Girmay shared with us, is spent on “justice and safety”, and health and human services only has 5%.

Nick Hanauer:

Yeah, and one of the consequences of that is that only seven countries in the world have a higher incarceration rate than Washington State, which is nothing to be too proud of.

Jessyn Farrell:

Right, and as a consequence, you have these outcomes for black people in our community that are terrible and harmful and dangerous. So it was really great to get Girmay’s perspective on where do we go from here, including demilitarizing the police and continuing to restrict use of deadly force by the police, but it has to be a lot more than that, and he’s talking about pretty big changes around that funding and redirecting it to other things.

Nick Hanauer:

I’m a huge fan of demilitarizing the police force. I just find living in a society where you’ve got all of these people with all these military grade weapons and armor personnel carriers, it is not healthy at all, and step one is taking all that nonsense away from police departments.

Jessyn Farrell:

And not only is it morally wrong and dangerous for the community to have a militarized police force, but it costs a lot. You have to store it, you have to replace it, you have to get people trained on it. So as we’re really having this conversation around whether our budgets match our values, it seems like that one is certainly low hanging fruit, but there are a lot of other budget choices that we make around police departments that don’t match our values either. One of the things I’ve been thinking a little bit about is we have a lot of mechanisms for instituting budget accountability in government. For example, we performance audit our transit agencies and we have our homelessness providers, their contracts are scrutinized and they’re required to show us that their outcomes are in keeping with what we wanted them to be doing, and we don’t ask our police departments to do that, and so what is so inspiring about this moment is activists, through years and years of organizing, are really forcing that conversation into the fore, and it’s this moment where we could really see big change.

Nick Hanauer:

Yeah. Well it’s been a fascinating conversation and a long time coming, and it will be really interesting to see how things unfold, but for sure, Jessyn, I think we need to take very seriously the idea of pressing our elected leaders to put action where their mouths are, or however you want to put it. We need to go beyond tweeting, to putting real serious pressure on the people we’ve elected to make the substantive changes to policy that will make the world a better place.

Speaker 4:

Pitchfork Economics is produced by Civic Ventures. If you liked the show, make sure to subscribe, rate, and review us wherever you get your podcasts. Find us on Twitter and Facebook @CivicAction And @NickHanauer. Follow our writing on Medium at Civic Skunk Works and peek behind the podcast scenes on Instagram at Pitchfork Economics. As always from our team at Civic Ventures, thanks for listening. See you next week.