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The occupation of Seattle's Capitol Hill District is a cautionary tale for police defunding

The occupation of Seattle's Capitol Hill District is a cautionary tale for police defunding
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An experiment in community self-policing recently took place in Seattle. It failed so badly that any municipality considering defunding its police force in a way that leaves a law enforcement vacuum had better take notice.  

On the night of June 8, after clashes with activists protesting the killing of George Floyd, the Seattle City Police Department withdrew from its East Precinct building in the Capitol Hill district. Protesters took control of a six-block area, which they named the Capitol Hill Occupied Protest zone (CHOP). Seattle Mayor Jenny DurkanJenny DurkanPolice accountability board concludes that Seattle police officers used excessive force during encounters with protesters Seattle, Portland, NYC sue Trump administration over threat to pull federal money Investigation recommends firing detective who appeared to mock protesters hit by car MORE suggested the coming of a “summer of love.” The leftist The Nation declared that CHOP was “an anti-capitalist vision of community sovereignty without police.”

But for those who live and work in the zone, there was far more fear than love, and the “vision” turned out to be a nightmare. Last week, businesses and residents in CHOP filed a lawsuit in federal court against the city of Seattle alleging that the city’s “unprecedented decision” to abandon an entire city neighborhood has caused damage to their property and threatened their safety.   

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The complaint stresses the plaintiffs’ support for free speech rights and the work of Black Lives Matter but reveals urban dystopia in CHOP much closer to the movie “Escape from New York” than the communal days of Woodstock. According to the complaint, the CHOP activists used concrete barriers left behind by the police to blockade the neighborhood to police cars, garbage and recycling pickup trucks and other vehicles. Armed activists sometimes decided who could enter CHOP. The police stopped responding to emergency calls except those involving the most serious safety threats, and even then the responses were slow. Incidents of arson and assault went without a police response. 

One weekend three people, all black men, were shot in CHOP and one died. When the Seattle police showed up, they were prevented by CHOP protesters from quickly reaching one of the victims. In the absence of police investigators, private individuals took it on themselves to search for bullet casings. So far no one has been charged in the shootings.

Garbage piled up; graffiti covered store fronts; music and fireworks prevented residents from sleeping; and the local park became a drug use haven. People on crutches who needed physical therapy could not get to their therapist in the CHOP zone because of the barricades. A maintenance worker who tried to remove graffiti was threatened. Employees of local businesses stopped coming to work because they did not feel safe, which financially jeopardized their employers. Residential condominiums had to hire armed guards. On Monday morning, there were two more shootings, leaving one dead and a 14-year-old in critical condition. 

Abandoning the summer of love, Mayor Durkan vowed to retake CHOP because of the harmful impact on businesses and residents. But CHOP protesters are resisting by lying down in front of bulldozers trying to remove the barricades. They insist that they won’t leave until Seattle cuts its police budget by at least 50 percent without explaining what will protect other Seattle neighborhoods when such draconian cuts inevitably reduce the police force.    

Defunding the police is a shape shifting concept that means different things to different people. The Minneapolis City Council proposes to disband its police force and replace it with a “holistic, public-health oriented approach,” whatever that means. Other municipalities are exploring more modest, non-police solutions to specific problems, such as mental illness, that are often a police responsibility. 

What a moment this is for badly needed police reform. In the wake of George Floyd’s death, there is remarkably broad public support for serious changes, including banning chokeholds and racial profiling; independent review of excessive police force; and requiring police to wear body cameras. But more CHOPs and the moment will be lost. Mayor Durkan finally got it right when she said about the CHOP protesters, “It’s time for people to go home.” 

Gregory J. Wallance, a writer in New York City, was a federal prosecutor during the Carter and Reagan administrations. He is the author of the historical novel, “Two Men Before the Storm: Arba Crane’s Recollection of Dred Scott and the Supreme Court Case That Started The Civil War.” Follow him on Twitter at @gregorywallance.