‘Mass exodus’ of Seattle officers over disgust with city leadership

Jun 28, 2018, 6:59 AM | Updated: 3:05 pm
seattle police...
(File, Associated Press)
(File, Associated Press)

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The Seattle Police Department is experiencing a “mass exodus” of officers due to a lack of support from the city, an aggressive Office of Professional Accountability, and toxic city politics, multiple law enforcement sources confirm to the Jason Rantz Show.

Over the course of just one week, one officer was told that 21 colleagues announced they left or planned to leave the department. Records indicate the department has seen 41 departures through the first five months of the year, putting them on pace to exceed last year’s 79 officer separations.

These losses aren’t solely due to attrition. These are young and mid-career officers who are unhappy with the city.

“There are lots of people walking out the door,” an officer explained. “This is a mass exodus. We’re losing people left and right. Why stick around when the City Council doesn’t appreciate you? [These officers are] fleeing the ‘Seattle mentality.’”

Unless otherwise noted, all officers quoted in this piece have been granted anonymity, as they fear retribution and have not been cleared to talk with the media.

Cops told not to police?

I spoke to one officer who said he recently left the Seattle Police Department due to a lack of support from the city council and SPD management.

“Morale was so low in Seattle that you had officers that lost the desire to do the police work,” he explained. “They couldn’t be the heroes like they wanted to. They felt like we weren’t being supported by their chain of command to do their job.”

Specifically, this former officer explained that he and his colleagues felt like they couldn’t do the work they signed up for, and are only now speaking out because, “What’s being done in the SPD is hurting the department and the city.”

“I was being ordered to do less police work,” he explained. “They would tell me … not to look for problems. A lot of this comes from there’s more risk with officers being proactive. I got into the job to help people, to make a difference … being a reactionary police department to wait until I was alerted to a problem wasn’t doing Seattle justice.”

This feeling isn’t isolated. Multiple officers contacted for this piece have made similar claims.

“I’ve known quality officers that have moved on…” explained Seattle Police Officer’s Guild President Kevin Stuckey.

RELATED: Union ‘angered’ after committee snubs interim chief

Stuckey says police staffing in Seattle is “dangerously low.” And while he hasn’t directly heard officers claim they’ve been asked to stop proactive work, he understands why it would happen.

“If I was a supervisor in this department and I had a group of young officers, I wouldn’t necessarily be telling them to go out and proactively work,” Stuckey admitted. “I would say do your jobs and if you see something, act on it; if you get dispatched, act on it. I wouldn’t say go look out for hand-to-hand exchanges. That would jeopardize your career and there’d be no support [from the city].”

But Interim Chief Carmen Best does not believe officers are being directly told not to police. She said, “we fully expect them to do their work and do proactive policing and interact with the community. I see a lot of good work being done. I see so much good work happening all the time, and I see a lot of it [proactive policing] every day.”

It’s this love of her people that earns Best such high regard from officers.

Still, the officers I spoke to are apprehensive. And it stems, in part, from their experiences with the Office of Professional Accountability (OPA).

OPA gets aggressive

The frustrations have been building for years. Many officers have complained they’re investigated for every minor complaint, including perceived rudeness.

The OPA has been prickly for many officers who feel it is exceeding its mission. Civilian-lead, the purpose of the OPA is to ensure officer compliance with federal, state, and local laws. But officers I’ve talked to feel the office drifted dramatically off course.

“The city wants secretaries with badges,” another officer explained. “OPA is looking for reasons to suspend and it’s created an environment to not do much and not arrest [criminals].”

Recently, SPD management broke with OPA when it recommended discipline for Officer Nick Guzley after he tackled an ax-wielding man, despite repeated attempts to convince the man to drop his weapon. Only OPA seemed to think this was a case of misconduct. In fact, a leading, national expert in use-of-force had volunteered his time to present a case on Guzley’s behalf to Chief Best. Guzley, it turns out, was cleared of any wrongdoing by Chief Best, according to a source (though this has not yet been made public and the Chief explained she cannot yet confirm details either way).

Guild President Stuckey understands why officers take issue with the OPA, though he doesn’t necessarily blame their director, Andrew Myerberg. The issue is that no one seems to know whether or not a mistake in the field is just that — a mistake — or if it’s misconduct that should lead to serious discipline.

“They’re getting in trouble for not turning cameras on fast enough,” Stuckey said. “You’re on the way to a call and you didn’t immediately turn on the camera. Yes, you helped [the victims]. But you didn’t do it fast enough so here’s two days off [as punishment]? That’s a question we have to ask ourselves: what does policing mean? Is a mistake misconduct for the police officers?”

But the issues extend far beyond anger or annoyance with the OPA. Afterall, much of the complaints OPA investigates come internally. Officers, as it happens, are sick of dealing with the Seattle City Council.

No support from the city council

Officers are growing tired of the constant barrage of negativity from councilmembers like Kshama Sawant, Mike O’Brien, and Lorena Gonzalez. In exit interviews with the SPD, some officers noted Seattle politics played a role.

“[Officers] came to help people and we help people all the time, but we don’t talk about that,” argued Stuckey. “If you make a mistake, we’ll put your name in the paper, pull every mistake you ever made, and beat you down so you can’t work anywhere else, take away your livelihood, if we don’t like your mistake. Tell me another profession that treats people like that?”

Sawant’s name came up in nearly every conversation I’ve had for this story — none of it positive. No stranger to controversy, Sawant is currently the subject of a defamation lawsuit after claiming two officers committed a “brutal murder” when they shot and killed convicted felon Che Taylor. Taylor was reaching for a gun when he was shot and the officers were cleared by an internal review board.

“Not only do they not support the police, but they villainize us,” one officer explained. “Sawant, in no way shape or form, should she make a comment on something she doesn’t understand.”

O’Brien is also unpopular. One officer believes O’Brien always piles on the cops when something goes wrong, an effort to placate community activists.

RELATED: Councilmember Mike O’Brien booted from gala

“He’s always on the [anti-cop] bandwagon,” the officer complained.

As for Gonzalez, she initially showed support for SPOG. That changed when Stuckey says she kicked him out of her office. They were discussing Gonzalez’s police accountability legislation. Stuckey believed they could find legislation that officers could get behind, but the hour-long meeting that was scheduled ended after just a few minutes.

“I’m not well liked in the city council,” Stuckey admits. “I go in to meet with her … She pretty much looked at me, and one of her aides came in and said, ‘two more minutes councilwoman,’ after I’ve been there five minutes. She said, ‘You know how meetings are.’ Then I was escorted out of her office. They didn’t feel like they needed to work with me. [SPOG] endorsed her when she ran. We gave money and endorsed her and the moment she got in — not that she needed to be our friends — but at least we thought this person would be an asset to this city and as far as I’m concerned she’s been a disappointment.”

The perceived lack of support is taking an emotional toll on these officers.

“What I’ve said to city government is that it’s our profession that’s taking a hit right now,” Stuckey explained. “There are very few people who want to do this job anymore; even fewer who want to do it in Seattle. I have a young officer who submitted his paperwork to go to Olympia. He said to me, ‘I didn’t sign up to be the bad guy. This isn’t what I want.’”

Neither Sawant, through her office, nor Gonzalez or O’Brien, through the council communications director, responded to requests for comment. Gonzalez offered “no formal comment” and O’Brien is out of town.

Show me a contract

Officers complain they’ve been working without a contract for more than three years. The negotiations are ongoing with meetings taking place, but there’s still distance between what the city wants and what officers find acceptable. And due to the confidentiality of the process, the public doesn’t know how far apart the sides are. We do know one sticking point is pay and the process is complex and multifaceted.

Officers, however, are growing impatient.

Repeatedly, officers have complained to me about unsatisfactory pay, which they don’t believe has kept up with the cost of living. Indeed, some officers are leaving because they can’t afford to live in the very city they police.

“[The contract’s] more of a concern than I’ve heard than anything,” Chief Best told me. “That’s one of the things that would help us immensely on many fronts.”

Stuckey, who was recently sidelined with a medical issue, has been part of the negotiations. He’d like to see a contract as a “thank you” from the city.

“I hope that we’ll be able to fix this situation by getting us a contract and thanking our officers,” he told me. “[They asked us] to change our department and [we] did it in record time, while being without a contract. No cost of living raises, but [we] still went ahead and were still professional… and as a reward, here’s your contract. That will help some people from leaving.”

Some, but not all. More and more officers are opting to head to Olympia, the Port Police, and the King County Sheriff’s Department.

The snub felt around the department

Officers are unhappy with the snub of Interim Chief Best in Mayor Jenny Durkan’s quest to find a new permanent chief to replace Chief Kathleen O’Toole. Many thought Best should have been among the final three candidates; others thought she was a shoe-in for the job. Well-respected by officers and community activists, open to talking to the public and the media, it was a rare case where both groups agreed with each other. You’ll be hard pressed to find many officers who aren’t fans of hers.

Still, Mayor Durkan’s “secret committee” of advisors, snubbed Best behind closed doors, insisting they go with an outsider. Police officers wondered, if they’ve already successfully navigated the federal consent decree, why would an outsider be necessary? What’s wrong with the current culture? Officers took this personally.

“Leadership change at any law enforcement agency can have an effect on members,” said King County Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht. “For some, it’s the fear of the unknown. For others, it’s the loss of a leader they know and trust.”

Many officers I spoke to criticized the snub and believe it played a role in some officers making the jump. Though we didn’t talk specifics, the sheriff said her department is seeing SPD officers making the move.

“It’s a time when morale can suffer, so it’s vital that the members get some sort of reassurance or they may look to leave,” Sheriff Johanknecht explained.

An SPD officer who left the department says he made the decision before the Best snub, though it still bothered him deeply.

“I feel she was the best choice for the role,” he explained. “She could be a good future for Seattle. I felt it was wrong the way she nixed her, for whatever their political reasons were.”

For her part, Chief Best tells me she’s “taking it day by day,” confirming that she’ll stay with SPD “…until at least the new chief comes in, unless I’m given different directions.”

After that? She says she’ll see.

How will we staff the SPD?

Current SPD officers believe recruitment in Seattle is a tough sell, arguing no one wants to become a cop under these current working conditions and a politically toxic environment. There’s either better pay or more support in other departments, they say.

SPD’s Human Resources Director Mike Fields questioned whether or not, in a week, 21 officers would indicate they’re leaving. But he did express disappointment when any officer leaves, regardless of the reasons.

“Anytime we lose a valued member of the department… when someone chooses to leave it’s a challenge and it’s a problem,” Fields explains. “I don’t know I’d say we have a staffing problem, [than] we do staffing challenges. Attrition is stable and we can hire somewhat in advance of attrition but the demand and call count… from my perspective, my goal is to hire as many quality diverse applicants as we can.”

Are we at dangerously low levels, as Stuckey and some officers suggest? It depends on how you look at the numbers.

From Chief Best’s perspective, “regular patrols are not a problem.” When it comes to special events — from games to parades — they rely on overtime. Still, officers have explained to me that the light staffing makes it harder for them to address, for example, unexpected protests.

Fields says he “consistently pushes for, not only aggressive hiring,” but higher budgets. And the SPD notes that they have more officers working today than they’ve ever had in the history of the department.

Will the “exodus” end?

With staffing an issue and officers believing their concerns aren’t being addressed, there’s potential for more sticking points. Summer months typically see an increase in crime and Stuckey says that crime, including out-of-control homelessness, is taking its toll.

“I live here. This is where I call home,” Stuckey said. “I just recently visited some other cities; Minneapolis. Madison, WI. These are beautiful cities. Ours used to be beautiful, too. Seattle isn’t beautiful anymore and I see no one making it beautiful again. If I was ten to fifteen years younger, I’d look to move somewhere else, too, if I’m being honest. I hope that we’ll be able to fix this situation…”

Contractual issues aside, based on my conversations with nearly a dozen police sources, simply changing the negative attitudes towards police would go a long way.

“Most people who leave … didn’t sign up to be the villain,” Stuckey cautions. “They came to help people.”

Jason Rantz on AM 770 KTTH
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‘Mass exodus’ of Seattle officers over disgust with city leadership