Police hold nightsticks in full riot gear behind a metal fence as protesters march by.
Police barricade during a June 3rd march and protest at City Hall. (Doug Trumm)

The Seattle Police Department (SPD) has a $15 million budget surplus resulting from a high rate of officer attrition over the past two years. With Mayor Jenny Durkan’s backing, Councilmember Alex Pedersen (District 4) introduced an amendment to the mid-year budget update that would have allocated $3 million of the surplus toward an officer retention program and $15,000 hiring bonuses for transfers from other police departments. The amendment was rejected by the council, 7-2, with only Debra Juarez (District 5) voting in support in addition to Pedersen.

Pedersen also offered a second $1.1 million version of the police hiring incentive amendment that failed as well, though at a much narrower margin, a close 5-4 vote with Pedersen, Juarez (District 5), Dan Strauss (District 6), and Andrew Lewis (District 7) all voting yes.

While Pedersen stressed hiring more officers, his colleagues took a different approach and moved $5.2 million out of the department. They also allocated funding to SPD for timekeeping software geared to better manage a leaner police force. Of the money shifted out, $3 million will fund grants to nonprofits specializing in alternatives to policing, which will be administered by the Human Services Department. Another $700,000 will fund a new civilian crisis-response unit tentatively called Triage One. Despite rejecting the hiring and retention incentives, the council did lift three provisos freeing up the remaining $8 million for SPD for other department expenses. Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda noted some of the surplus would fund recordkeeping resources — including two new positions in public records and IT — to help SPD reply to public record requests in a timely manner, hopefully overcoming their current pattern of tardiness and in some cases obfuscation.

During the meeting, Public Safety Chair Lisa Herbold argued against treating SPD separately from other City departments also experiencing staffing shortages related to pandemic hiring freeze and disruptions. While she voted no, Herbold said she would support hiring bonuses in the 2022 budget if other short-staffed departments also saw similar incentives.

SPD officers have left the force, but the reasons provoking their departure remain unclear

More than 300 officers have left the department in the past 18 months, Pedersen said. So far, SPD has been able to replace about 100 of them through new hires. While SPD was funded for about 1,400 sworn officers positions in 2020, the staffing shortage has kept the agency’s actual numbers lower.

Seattle police officers are some of the most highly compensated in the nation and some of the highest paid public employees in city, as Councilmember Kshama Sawant noted in her comments. In 2019, SPD’s median gross pay was about $153,000 and 374 officers pulled in more than $200,000 in gross pay, according to a Seattle Times analysis. Maxing out his overtime pay to a suspicious degree, one patrol officer managed to pull in $414,543 in 2019.

Why SPD is losing officers despite high salaries is a bit of a mystery, but it is a trend that has hit police departments across the country. One theory is that policing is suffering from its bad reputation and struggling to appeal to younger generations that are increasingly composed of people of color. On the other hand, people may be leaving the profession or certain departments because they feel unsupported by their governmental leaders and the public. Police interested in reforming the department may also be leaving because they see those efforts have stalled out.

A set of SPD exit interviews published by KUOW in 2019 tended to stress the unsupported narrative and fixate blame on City Council and Sawant specifically in some cases, but it’s not clear if the exodus since then follows the same pattern. SPD also appears to be one of the least vaccinated departments in the City and has seen some recent Covid outbreaks, with the police guild ardently fighting a vaccine mandate and declining to disclose its vaccination rate. In short, for all the hand-wringing about the “mass exodus,” some reasons behind it aren’t getting much examination.

Mayor Jenny Durkan and Interim Police Chief Adrian Diaz painted the department as facing a crisis and urged the council to support one of Pedersen’s amendments. “As a City, we need to address the real hiring and retention challenges at the Seattle Police Department,” Durkan wrote. “It’s a false choice to invest in alternatives or hire and retain officers to meet our current 911 response.”

During the Council Briefing on Monday, Councilmember Pedersen opined that a hit-and-run collision that killed a pedestrian on Aurora Avenue in Wallingford might have a harder time being successfully investigated due to SPD’s staffing shortage. Officers did apprehend a suspect in the hit and run who apparently had been speeding and driving under the influence of alcohol. It does not appear the staffing shortage prevented that arrest, but Pedersen did find it related and worried SPD might struggle to close the case or future cases like it without his hiring and retention bonus amendment.

Conflicting visions of what it means to defund SPD

PubliCola‘s Paul Faruq Kiefer reported Pedersen said his amendments were intended as emergency measures, not repudiations of the council’s plans to downsize the role of SPD. “It’s all about timing the investments based on the immediate needs,” Pedersen said in an email to Publicola. “We have already set aside tens of millions for additional upstream human services investments, which I also support.”

Councilmember Lewis had a slightly different take, agreeing that stemming the losses of officers and ensuring reasonable crisis response times was important since no other agency or force was yet prepared to fill that role in SPD’s place. However, investment to that effect should not come at the expense of Council’s investments to stand up civilian emergency response forces, he said. The smaller amendment met his conditions so he voted it while opposing Pederson’s larger retention and hiring incentive package that cut into money shifted out of the department.

Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda noted only 6% of calls to SPD related to felonies and stressed that setting up the civilian crisis response and alternatives to policing were the key to ensuring public safety rather than pumping more into SPD bonuses.

In the summer of 2020, seven of nine councilmembers backed the campaign to defund SPD by 50% as protests raged; however, some have walked back their commitments a bit. Pedersen and Juarez were the two never to commit to defunding, and the Council did manage to decrease SPD’s budget by 18% last year even without their votes. The skirmish over retention bonuses is just a small part of that larger battle.

After the recent decisions made, another $5.2 million has been siphoned from SPD’s budget, but advocates for defunding police such as Decriminalize Seattle are still anxious for more cuts in order obtain the 50% defund they set out to achieve.

Author’s note: This piece has been updated with note of the recordkeeping resources.

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Doug Trumm is publisher of The Urbanist. An Urbanist writer since 2015, he dreams of pedestrianizing streets, blanketing the city in bus lanes, and unleashing a mass timber building spree to end the affordable housing shortage and avert our coming climate catastrophe. He graduated from the Evans School of Public Policy and Governance at the University of Washington in 2019. He lives in East Fremont and loves to explore the city on his bike.