The Seattle Police Department's fully-funded hiring plan still isn't leading to new officers. The Seattle City Council is trying to entice officers with bonuses. (Seattle Police Department)

Yesterday, the Seattle City Council’s public safety committee voted unanimously to advance a bill releasing $1 million in Seattle Police Department (SPD) salary savings to pay for hiring incentives aimed at growing the ranks of sworn officers. The move comes after a wave of retirements and transfers during the pandemic have depleted SPD’s ranks. The bill and accompanying resolution are scheduled to go to full Council on May 24th.

In a statement, Mayor Bruce Harrell commended the progress on the bill and promised release of “his more comprehensive recruitment strategy to City Council and the general public before summer, with further specific funding recommendations for Council’s consideration for approval.”

SPD pushes back against civilianization

The public safety committee also heard a report from Harrell’s Director of Public Safety Andrew Myerberg and other SPD staff providing a risk assessment and analyzing opportunities to civilianize more functions of the department. The SPD has been resistant to the City Council’s efforts to civilianize more of the City’s emergency response, which could help them make do with fewer officers and focus on higher priority calls. Utilizing a barrage of acronyms and jargon, SPD insisted that most calls can’t be civilianized, reiterating they disputed the outside report that 12% of calls could shunted out of the department almost immediately and requesting more time and study.

Councilmember Andrew Lewis pushed back at the conclusion, noting that Denver has gotten a civilian response pilot program off the ground and has two years of data that SPD could review and consider as a model to implement their own program.

“Denver, Colorado has been doing this for two years. Denver has responded to 2,700 calls without any incident or problem — that are dispatched through 9-1-1. They have figured a way to triage those calls during their pilot. Did they go through a similar data analysis project as this? Why haven’t I heard from any of the panels over the last two years a site visit or analysis or discussion from anyone from Denver about how they respond to these calls?”

SPD’s chief operating officer Brian Maxey said they had studied the model but downplayed its applicability and pivoted to a co-responder model adding a mental health professional or social worker or similar on top of a police response. Maxey also posited that Denver’s program was largely responding to calls police wouldn’t have, but Lewis disputed that, quoting statistics from the pilot showing more than 80% would have garnered police response. Lewis said having officers cover so many calls that could handled by others is robbing the department of their ability to deploy their resources more wisely.

“There is an opportunity cost when we have SPD officers do what other folks can do, given the current staffing crisis we’re facing and given the allocation of resources,” Lewis said. “Every time I go to a Mariners game and I see SPD officers directing traffic, I’m like I’d much rather have that overtime shift be a burglary emphasis patrol in small business district, right. Whenever I see officers augmenting Parks employees for an encampment removal when we know the Seattle Defenders Association is capable without needing to take up those police resources, I think I’d rather see those officers walking a beat…”

During the 2022 state legislative session, a bill that would have allowed non-officers to direct traffic died largely due to opposition from law enforcement groups, underlining the fact that police are often the biggest barrier to reducing what duties police officers are required to respond to.

Nelson declares victory

Following the meeting, Councilmember Sara Nelson greeted the unanimous vote on the $1 million in hiring incentives as a victory, framing public safety as a dire crisis that a few more officer recruits would be able to make a dent in.

“I put forward this resolution because violent crime and property crime are skyrocketing during the most severe staffing shortage in Seattle Police Department’s history,” Nelson wrote in a release after the vote. “We don’t have enough officers on the street to address this public safety crisis. We must use every means at our disposal to hire more officers – quickly! – and my resolution calls for the development of a staffing incentives program to accelerate SPD’s recruitment efforts. Every other jurisdiction in our region has put in place hiring incentives and Seattle must do the same in order to compete for a limited pool of applicants.”

Nelson and Public Safety Chair Lisa Herbold had clashed at an earlier committee meeting and council briefing, with Nelson claiming Herbold was unfairly stymying her legislation and being “profoundly disrespectful” to Council President Debora Juarez, who has been absent over the past two council meetings.

A truce seems to have been struck, with Nelson adding an amendment allocating another $350,000 for outreach and advertising to Herbold’s bill releasing $650,000 for moving expenses. Nelson’s resolution also lays out intent to release more of the salary savings as further hiring incentives later in the year. However, it’s not clear if most of her Council colleagues will be onboard with exactly what Nelson has mind in the midst of a budget shortfall. Labor rules require that the City negotiate retention bonuses via collective bargaining agreement, which means they won’t be possible until the City and the Seattle Police Officers Guild strike a deal. Those negotiations appear stalled out at the moment, leaving officers working under the terms of an expired contract.

Budget Chair Teresa Mosqueda, who voted against Nelson’s resolution in committee, noted those budgetary concerns in her comments and said SPD should make due within existing funds without fully lifting the proviso on salary savings. The good news on that front is that the deficit has shrunk significantly in recent City projections from the $148 million predicted previously.

Last year, Mayor Jenny Durkan set a goal of hiring 125 new police officers and curb the attrition rate in order to achieve a net gain of 35 officers. So far, those rosy projections don’t appear to be coming to pass.

“Council allocated enough money in SPD’s 2022 budget to hire 125 new officers but they’ve only hired 13 so far this year,” Nelson said. “Meanwhile, officers continue to separate from the department. This dire trend will leave a projected $4.1 million in unspent funds by year’s end, and I believe the best purpose for that money is incentives and recruitment support.”

Herbold awaits comprehensive plan from Mayor

In contrast, Herbold argued the link between one-time hiring incentives and an increase in police recruitment is inconclusive and the City should focus on replenishing staff numbers at all essential job positions, not just police.

“My collaboration with the Mayor’s office on this topic has been focused on doing something to address recruitment issues now, not just for hiring police officers, but including critical but hard-to-fill city jobs like carpenters, truck drivers, and civil engineers,” Herbold said in a prepared statement. “A report released by the Executive states that traditional hiring bonuses have a ‘limited impact on retention’ and have ‘potential inherent drawback and equity issues for both the employer and employees.’ Councilmember Nelson’s resolution gives SPD the time to develop a staffing incentives program that may or may not end up including traditional hiring bonuses; we won’t know until we get a proposal from the Executive. I look forward to considering it when delivered by the Executive.”

While previous meetings on the hiring incentive topic had gotten heated, the Mayor’s office portrayed the collaboration as fruitful.

“These two thoughtful proposals complement one another,” Mayor Harrell said. “In the short term, Councilmember Herbold’s ordinance asks the City’s Department of Human Resources to develop policy to provide moving relocation benefits for a wider array of citywide job positions that are challenging to hire, with prioritization given to police officers. The Seattle Police Department would be granted access to $650,000 in salary savings to pay for relocation benefits for Seattle Police Department (SPD) officers and to hire an SPD recruiter to attract qualified professionals to Seattle. Councilmember Nelson intends to offer a friendly amendment to the ordinance, which would increase SPD’s recruitment advertising and outreach budget by $350,000, as well as support the police chief national search process.”

Mayor Harrell worried that officers felt unwelcome and unsupported in Seattle, which is what several former employees have indicated in exit interviews. It’s hard to quantify feelings of alienation and underappreciation. However, if money talks, most officers are well supported. Median gross pay exceeded $152,000 for SPD officers in 2019, far exceeding most other public employees, and 374 officers pulled in more than $200,000 in gross pay that year, according to a Seattle Times analysis.

“We know that reaching national best practice staffing levels for SPD can’t be achieved solely with incentives. Progress requires a holistic effort rooted in our shared commitment to make this a place where officers feel welcome and supported – and where all neighbors feel safe,” Mayor Harrell said in a statement. “I hope that between these two Councilmembers’ efforts, and following a robust policy debate, we can work together toward what we’re all striving for: A safe and healthy Seattle.”

“People are dying!” Councilmember Nelson added in committee.

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Article Author
Executive Director

Doug Trumm is the executive director 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. He lives in East Fremont and loves to explore the city on his bike.