In mid-May, just six weeks after announcing his bid for the Seattle City Council, Egan Orion moderated a panel on summer safety for the now-defunct Capitol Hill Chamber of Commerce. A big topic of discussion that day was the understaffing of the Seattle Police Department.
SPD East Precinct commander Capt. Bryan Grenon noted at the meeting that the department was down several officers on all watches and that in his 28 years on the force, they’ve never had officers to spare.
So Orion came into Wednesday’s candidate forum hosted by the Seattle Police Officers Guild to prove his mettle on one of the biggest issues plaguing the city and the district. And what was the first issue he brought up in his opening statement?
“We’re losing police officers faster than we can hire them on the SPD,” Orion said. “Public safety is an essential part of our every day lives, of course.”
Kshama Sawant, Orion’s competitor and the most vocal Seattle Police critic on the current council, chose to make her statement by not attending Wednesday’s forum that included at least one candidate from all seven council seats up for election next month.
“Far too often, the conversation on police accountability has had to start at the grassroots level in the wake of tragic events, with the political establishment rushing to catch up, and the SPOG standing in opposition,” Sawant said in a statement. “I stand with the Movement for Black Lives, which has called for independently elected community oversight boards with full powers over police departments.”
Orion, who lives in the Central District, said Wednesday night that his neighborhood this year has dealt with a spate of shootings, including the death of 19-year-old Royale Lexing in May. After these shootings, the council in June hosted a hearing in the CD with members of several city departments and SPD on gun violence attended by Sawant.
Sawant cast the only vote against the city’s proposed contract with the SPOG, which has over 1,300 members, almost a year ago, arguing that it would roll back necessary provisions in the city’s new police accountability law.
U.S. District Judge James Robart found the city out of compliance with a federal consent decree on police reform. He specifically cited concerns about weaknesses in Seattle’s officer accountability system, which were largely due to the contract between the city and the SPOG.
Orion spoke on this Wednesday, saying “we do need accountable, constitutional policing and we also need to stabilize our force and celebrate the great work that officers are doing everyday out in our streets.” He called for rebuilding trust between the police and the neighborhoods they serve, especially communities of color and the LGBTQ+ community.
UPDATE: We have updated our headline on this post after being contacted by Orion about our characterization that he called for “more cops” at the forum. “I’m saying we need to be able to hire as many officers as we are losing so that the size of our force is constant,” Orion wrote. “‘More cops’ makes it sound like I want a much larger police force. That’s not what I said.” CHS has updated the headline.
He said SPD’s East Precinct, located on Capitol Hill, is doing a “great job with outreach, but we can always do more.”
With Sawant not in attendance, the forum moderators asked Orion about the lawsuit filed against the council member last year by two officers alleging she defamed them when she publicly called the officer-involved shooting of Che Taylor a “brutal murder” motivated by race. A federal judge dismissed the lawsuit.
“We’ve set up these systems to hold folks accountable and get to the truth,” Orion said. “I want to respect the process; I think that it’s robust. Is there more that we can do? Absolutely and I think that when’s there a chance to renegotiate the SPOG contract, we could do that, but let’s respect the contract.”
Orion told independent journalist Erica C. Barnett last month that, “You can force the contract to be reopened, but I think that’s my final potential way forward. That will make the police very angry. So I’m standing with the unions on this one for now.”
Sawant still got her positions on policing in Seattle and SPOG on the record, meanwhile, arguing in her statement that both the political establishment and the union bear responsibility for the issues the city is facing.
“It is unfortunate that the rest of the City Council ratified a police contract last year that rolled back the hard-fought accountability, despite opposition from more than two-dozen community groups, and a joint statement from 40 from union members and leaders,” she wrote. “As a public-sector union member myself, I strongly believe w age and benefit increases cannot be pitted against the need for workers to also stand united against racism, and the best moments of the labor movement have seen workers of all races and genders fight together for workplace rights and against oppression.”
“SPOG has opposed any genuine discussion about accountability on numerous occasions,” the incumbent said.
Ballots for the general election will be mailed out October 16 and drop boxes will open the next day. They won’t close until the evening of November 5. Voters will have a chance to listen to the candidates in several more forums before the race is decided, including another debate on police accountability in Beacon Hill on the day ballots go out. Sawant’s statement said she would take part in that forum.
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