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.