Three officers standing around a squad car
Officers at the Seattle Police Department spend to much time in their squad cars and not enough time walking a beat and deterring and solving crimes. (Seattle Police Department)

Despite big pay boost, Seattle’s police contract is not poised to improve safety outcomes.

With multiple Seattle City Council members saying that hiring more police officers is a top priority (including both Council President Sara Nelson and Public Safety Committee Chair Bob Kettle), it would be a big mistake for them to approve the new Seattle Police Officers Guild (SPOG) contract as it stands today.

While the hope is that its hefty salary increases will help the department hire more officers, there’s a risk that the fact that they are retroactive to 2021 will prompt current officers to retire. That prospect, paired with a lack of accountability measures, raises the stakes on a “poison pill” in the current version of the contract that will put Seattle at a disadvantage recruiting officers versus other departments – at least of the officers we’d benefit from hiring most.

It also unwisely limits civilian policing alternatives. As reported in The Stranger, the contract severely limits what types of calls can be handled by civilian public safety staff rather than sworn officers. I previously explained the multiple ways Seattle lags many other cities in deploying civilian responders to handle a wide variety of calls for service equally well or better at a lower cost than sworn officers. 

While “fiscal responsibility” ought to make fixing this ASAP a slam dunk (in San Jose, for example, the maximum salary for Community Service Officers who have handled responding to and investigating lower priority calls for service for a decade is just over half (55%) of the top salary of sworn officers), it’s not the top reason for civilianization.

It’s even more important in order to respect the  motivation, time, and talent of police officers–at least those who chose the job for the right reasons. I’ll let the words of Debbie Thomas, a director for the Los Angeles Police Department’s rank-and-file union (their equivalent of SPOG), which has proposed of its own accord more than two dozen call types for solo civilian response, speak for themselves:

“Police officers are not psychologists. We are not psychiatrists. We are not mental health experts. We are not social workers, doctors, nurses or waste management experts,” Thomas said. “I do believe that many people think we should be all those things but we are not. We should be focused on responding to emergencies, saving lives (and) property, and of course, engaging in community policing.”

Likewise, here’s an officer in Denver talking about the city’s successful, popular, and expanding civilian crisis response program: “All of us in policing, you know, I think most of us got into this job to catch the bad guy, to arrest the bad guy, to keep our community safe. And so going to the guy that’s having a mental health episode, standing naked in the street, it’s like, is that person a bad guy? I didn’t get into this job to tackle naked guys for basically causing a disturbance.”

A half dozen police and a medic team talk to a person in a wheel chair across from Pioneer Square Station. A police cruiser and ambulance are parked along Third Avenue.
A common scene in Downtown Seattle as medics respond to a crisis and police stand around. (Doug Trumm)

Among municipal employees – including other public safety roles, sworn police officers are uniquely equipped and trained to confront offenders (in particular, violent offenders) — aka “bad guys.”

The officers we want in Seattle are those keen to spend their time leveraging this distinction to reduce crime in the most effective way: proactive police work. (From my time working on community policing initiatives in two departments in the 1990s, I would actually lean toward saying “those who are hellbent” on it). 

Proactive police work comes in two main flavors of “working a beat:” geographically-based and problem-based.

Working a geographic beat exploits three criminological facts. First, crime is geographically concentrated. Second, deterrence is a function of the perceived likelihood of getting caught (rather than the severity of punishment). Finally, if you disrupt the nexus of “offender, victim, and location” no crime occurs. 

Directed foot patrol has a deterrent effect (unlike motorized patrol, which as this former cop explains mostly doesn’t work). It enables an officer to understand who’s who and how the social or physical environment on the beat can be modified to break the offender-victim-location nexus. As described by a researcher accompanying one beat officer in Philadelphia:

“One positive [aspect] about walking a foot beat is that you become familiar with the people of the neighborhood.” They thought they used this to their advantage because they can easily tell who is out of place and who does not belong. They reported that when they first arrived they thought everyone was “up to no good” but now that they have been around for a bit, they are able to differentiate between the good and bad. A known drug dealer was walking down the street and the officers yelled to him, “Go home Anton,” and he looked back and continued walking away. People on their steps were amused by this and thanked the officers.

Jennifer Wood et al

Unfortunately not all crime can be prevented, but problem-based beats exploit another criminological fact: a small number of people commit a disproportionate percentage of crimes. So tracking down the few offenders who commit lots of crime can make a big impact. “Beats” like these manifest as (for example) gang units or  organized retail crime, sex trafficking, or warrant fugitive task forces. A case study of a warrant fugitive task force gives a good example of the type of work and its results here:

Officers put in a great deal of “leg work” to gather leads. They walk the streets in the fugitives’ old neighborhoods, talk with neighbors at known previous addresses, interview relatives and acquaintances, and check for forwarding information from former employers, post officers, and utility companies. At this stage of the investigation, the collective ideas, contacts, and knowledge of the team members provide vital information for locating subjects. When investigators pinpoint a fugitive’s location, the task force, often in conjunction with local authorities, makes the arrest…

E A McManus; J Locke (1995)

Seattle risks contractually locking itself into being the city where instead of reducing crime through proactive police work you burn your shift tackling naked guys, taking theft reports, and doing wellness checks instead. 

In today’s highly competitive environment for hiring police officers, those who chose the job in order to spend their time reducing crime in ways that only sworn officers can don’t have to settle for that.

This is not an idle worry: Chief Diaz complained to the incoming council Public Safety Committee about “how hard it is for police to find ‘down time’ to recover and relax because they’re constantly running between urgent calls.”

Here are some 2024 NextDoor social media posts about what’s got sworn officers running ragged:

“Our [car make and model] was stolen from in front of our house last night just after 2… We did file a police report and the police actually came to the house.”


“Cop showed up and personally delivered a stolen package. Apparently it was found with a group of other stolen packages a mile away from me.” 

And another:

“A vehicle drove by and “dropped” a tool box in the middle of the road. The tool box with a ‘zillion’ screws, nails, drill bits etc were tossed all over the road making a huge hazard to cars, people and pets. So we called 911 to come help us clean it up. My husband swept most of it to the side of the road while I stood w[ith] a flashlight trying to prevent cars driving over it. SDOT and SPD [Seattle Police Department] arrived pretty quickly and very helpful and thankfully took over clearing the road and keeping cars safe!!!”

In the first post-election meeting of the Seattle City Council’s Public Safety Committee, incoming chair Bob Kettle presented a slide which identified “police staffing” as the top pillar he intended to focus on to reduce what he called a “permissive environment” toward crime. In that same meeting, Councilmember Cathy Moore promised Seattle Police Chief Adrian Diaz an intention to “allow police to police.”

Ironically, the biggest barriers to the proactive police work that moves the needle on crime are the failure of Chief Diaz and Mayor Harrell, his boss, to follow the lead of other departments who use civilians to handle incidents like those above.  

Now the SPOG contract as currently proposed could contractually lock in continuing to do the bad guys a solid for at least three more years, even if we are lucky enough to get better leadership at the top. The sad fact is that there are reasons to doubt that SPD’s current leadership cares much about maximizing the time officers spend on proactive police work. And the department’s track record of doing so professionally and equitably is also spotty, to say the least.

But what would make things even worse is losing out on a generation of applicants who want to do the right work, for the right reasons, and are offered that opportunity by other cities.

Sending it back to the drawing board is a critical test of credibility and seriousness for a council that has pledged to be “tough on crime.”

Article Author
Bryan Kirschner