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Seattle police guild VP explains why cops are leaving

Police Guild VP Rich O'Neill says officers want to enforce the law, but they get mixed messages. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

The Seattle Police Department’s chief operating officer Brian Maxey insists that cops are not exiting Seattle in great numbers. Two union officials, however, have gone on the record to argue otherwise, via KTTH Radio’s Jason Rantz.

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“It’s not just one reason, it’s all these reasons,” said Seattle Police Officers Guild Vice President Rich O’Neill. “We are in a staffing crisis. We have the same number of officers that we had in the 1970s, which is appalling when you think of the population boom and industry that has come to Seattle over that time. And officers are fed up … The contract is a huge part of it. The officers have not had a raise in four years, while the city is flush with money, is pouring money in social programs. The officers have not had a raise, while the mayor has had a raise, the city council has had a raise. So officers are saying ‘You know what, I’m going to speak with my feet and I’m going to leave.’”

O’Neill and Seattle Police Officer’s Guild President Kevin Stuckey say that police officers are leaving Seattle in large numbers because of a toxic relationship with city leaders, among other reasons.

The Seattle Times reports that SPD is countering the police guild’s assertion. The department has lost 41 officers so far in 2018 (39 during the same time in 2017). That includes 21 cops who retired, and 20 officers who left the department. Maxey told The Times that wages are stuck at 2014 levels as union contract negotiations continue. That has contributed to officers leaving to other cities for better pay. The city also argues that the 1,403 officers serving in Seattle is the highest number in SPD history. Other news sources, such as KING 5, have reported similar statistics.

O’Neill says that there is a context that the numbers can’t communicate.

“Statistics are just that, you can look at them in all different ways and try to spin them,” O’Neill said. “In my 38 years I have never seen so many officers leaving. We have always had officers leave for retirement … but the thing that is new is that officers in the range of about year three to about year 10 are leaving. And they are not leaving law enforcement. They are leaving for other communities; they are leaving for other departments. Very close, too – King County Sheriff, Snohomish County Sheriff, Lakewood, Olympia.”

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O’Neill says officers want to enforce the law, but they get mixed messages from the court system.

“We have laws on the books that say you can’t camp on city streets,” he said. “We have laws on the books that say you can’t sit and lie on downtown business sidewalks during the day. But when they go and make that arrest or make that enforcement effort, the person isn’t prosecuted. The city attorney will choose to let them out. So the officers quickly learn that it doesn’t make any sense to keep arresting the same people over and over.”

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“And when they do make the arrest and the person is released and the person makes a frivolous complaint, now the officer is into our over-scrupulous discipline system that will hammer the officer because they were 10 seconds late turning on their camera or something like that,” O’Neill said. “So the officer gets a bad mark on their discipline record. All these things are contributing to it. But the laws are there. The laws are on the books. It’s just a matter of a decision being made to go out and enforce them and to prosecute.”

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