Flush with federal cash, WA cities steer resources to police

A reversal on ‘defund’

Cities from Spokane to Yakima are buying their officers new cruisers. Tacoma and Lynnwood purchased officer-worn body cameras. Pierce County used $4 million in ARPA funds to give every sheriff’s deputy a $10,000 bonus, a practice becoming so common that even Seattle is now preparing to follow suit. Walla Walla is paying officer salaries out of their federal pot. And in Auburn, the city used rescue plan money to purchase 123 new tasers. 

The murder of Floyd by Minneapolis police in May 2020 and the resulting Black Lives Matter demonstrations around the country forced a reconsideration of how communities invest in public safety. Advocates called for “defunding” police and spending toward community programs such as restorative justice courts or behavioral health outreach. 

But now, flush with federal stimulus money, some local governments are doing the opposite — using federal dollars to again invest in cops and incarceration.

“My feelings on it are frustration,” said Jim Leighty, a police accountability activist in Spokane. “They want to put money into police cars, yet if I see somebody on the street having a severe mental health crisis, I have no one to call.” 

Although crime has consistently decreased since the 1990s, the United States has seen a spike in murders since the pandemic began. In response, Democratic leaders in cities like New York, Seattle and the District of Columbia have backed away or reversed course on efforts to reduce police funding, with many increasing police budgets in 2021. President Joe Biden has spoken approvingly of cities spending ARPA funds on police, distancing himself from the “defund” movement. 

“The answer is not to defund the police,” Biden said at a press conference with law enforcement leaders last Friday. “The answer is to fund the police with the resources and training they need to protect our communities.”

This story is a part of Crosscut’s WA Recovery Watch, an investigative project tracking federal dollars in Washington state.

Some local governments in Washington state have already spent much of their ARPA dollars, while others are expected to make spending decisions throughout the coming months. Officials have until the end of 2024 to obligate the funds and until 2026 to spend them.

Federal rules denote four broad categories of eligible uses of ARPA money: responding to the public health or economic impacts of the pandemic; premium pay for essential workers; water, sewer or broadband infrastructure; and replacing lost revenue. 

Cities have in some cases stretched the meaning of those categories further. Auburn, for example, filed its taser and camera purchase under the category of “mitigating the negative economic impacts of COVID-19.” 

Police department purchases are often filed under “lost revenue,” because it can encompass nearly any government service.

Nationally, cities and states have also tested the limits of the federal government’s definitions. 

Lawmakers in Alabama earmarked $400 million of its federal money to build a new prison. The Department of Treasury’s final rule, released in January, contained vague language suggesting that building a new prison may not satisfy the criteria of being “related and reasonably proportional to a harm caused or exacerbated by the pandemic.”

Alabama hasn’t blinked. The state signed a contract in late April with a construction company, and Gov. Kay Ivey has argued that Treasury’s rule doesn’t disqualify the project. So far there’s little indication the federal government would step in to block states from making their own decisions about how to spend the money.

The Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, which advocates on behalf of law enforcement agencies statewide, told Crosscut that spending recovery money on police equipment remains a local decision and deferred comment to local police departments.

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