City’s desperate attempt to fight Seattle cop ‘mass exodus’ story
The City of Seattle is pushing back at my report, which included nearly a dozen sources, that there’s a “mass exodus” of officers who are leaving, thinking of leaving or getting ready to leave the Seattle Police Department due to a number of concerns.
Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office is now engaged in understandable damage control, with an unlikely ally in the media. And while they fight back against my story, more and more officers are coming forward, and now they’re upset with the city’s response.
“There are lots of people walking out the door,” an officer explained in my original story. “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.’”
The key issues angering cops are a lack of support from the city, an aggressive Office of Professional Accountability, and toxic city politics. Indeed, council members routinely demonize them. Interim Chief Carmen Best was initially snubbed in her bid to lead the department, and police have been working without a contract for three years.
Now, after my original report, dozens of additional officers have come forward to express the same concerns. Seattle officials claim the story isn’t true and they’re pointing to related, but ultimately irrelevant data, to make their point.
Look at the numbers
The mayor’s office points to the number of hires they’ve made within the department, while the SPD itself is downplaying the reasons officers are leaving. This recently unfolded at a federal consent decree hearing where Judge James Robart asked about a Q13 report that piggybacked on (and confirmed) the claims made by my sources.
The argument from the mayor is that there can’t be a mass exodus because the department has hired three more officers (+44) than have left in 2018 through May (-41). After my report, the department released numbers that show through May 2017 it lost 38 officers, which is shy of the current separations. This, to them, means there’s no mass exodus in the context of my original report.
The Stranger, a publication cops generally loathe thanks to some of their writers’ anti-cop animus, has picked up on this talking point, with one of their reporters telling me that it was a “lie of omission” by leaving out the exact number of officers that left the department this time last year.
This spin is baffling.
SPD did not release that specific data point to me until July 2 in an email. And the first time they put the number out publicly was on July 9, 2018, according to SPD public information officer Sean Whitcomb. Originally, the department didn’t even have the 2018 numbers I reported, calling me hours later with the information.
The Stranger’s Lester Black, partially quoting me, wrote:
Rantz told me over Twitter that he omitted the 39 number because he “printed what I thought was relevant to the actual point…”
Only, that’s not what I told him. My full quote, which he omitted (was that a lie by omission?), is this:
I think you should print any of the numbers you think are relevant to the story angle you’re pursuing. I printed what I thought was relevant to the actual point of the piece: why officers are unhappy and leaving, thinking about leaving, or about to. And if your sources who work as officers dispute anything in my story, you should absolutely print it so people can hear even more voices on the topic.
From the start of my conversation with Black, I explained: “I don’t have a comment on anything that’s not in the story…”. The reason is obvious: I’m not giving a competitor a look into my story when I’m not done reporting on it, nor would I want to release any information that could divulge any of my sources.
Black pushed for why I left the data out, and I didn’t answer directly. He seems to think I did, so there was clearly a miscommunication. It happens. But it’s also important to note the number of separations is 38, not 39, according to the SPD. More on that in a moment.
But given the information wasn’t made available, it makes sense why that number wasn’t included in my original report. However, in this make-believe world where I had the information, should it have been included? No. Monthly comparisons don’t yield trends when the numbers are this tight and the department itself offers annual numbers to show fuller staffing levels. But, moreover, it has nothing to do with the claims of officers.
The number of hires is irrelevant to why officers are either leaving, planning to leave, or about to leave. Their reasons — and the unusually young age of cops who are unhappy — was the very point of my story.
If a substantial number of officers leave, that is the literal definition of a mass exodus. Indeed, the HR Director for the SPD confirms they “have a staffing problem” which is why their “…goal is to hire as many quality diverse applicants as we can.” Hiring to make up for lost officers – no matter their reason for departing – doesn’t negate the claim of a mass exodus in the context of why they’re leaving. And when there’s a large number of officers sharing identical concerns, the City (and media) should take note.
It’s all about the money?
It makes sense that Mayor Durkan and other SPD officials are on the defensive, particularly on the claims by some officers that they’re not pro-actively policing out of fear of investigations. That assertion could lead to Seattleites feeling unsafe. Certainly, Durkan and Chief Best need to say that the Seattle Police Department is a good place to work because they need recruits to come into the force. And none of these issues are the fault of either Durkan or Best; not a single source I’ve spoken to blame either of these individuals.
But some officers have explained to me they’re annoyed and angry that the City is pushing back on the claims in my original story.
In a recent hearing for United States of America v. City of Seattle, Judge Robart discussed the mass exodus claims, referring to an interview Seattle Police Officers Guild Vice President Rich O’Neill gave Q13. Similarly, on the Jason Rantz Show on KTTH 770 AM, O’Neil said:
Statistics are just that, you can look at them in all different ways and try to spin them. 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.
When Judge Robart asked Brian Maxey, the department’s chief operating officer, whether or not the mass exodus was happening, Maxey said no. But he acknowledged it’s hard to recruit. He said:
We do have more difficulty with the hiring pool at this point in time. Part of that goes back to the SPOG contract because we are at wages that were set on January of 2014… We also have a flurry of neighboring jurisdictions that have increased incentive bonuses for lateral transfers. Up to $15,000 dollars to switch to a different agency. So while we’re not seeing any mass exodus, we are definitely seeing a slowing of our hiring.
This exchange lead to Black’s piece in the Stranger where he incorrectly asserts the judge fact-checked the mass exodus claims (he also incorrectly stated to me that the judge fact checked my story when he was referring to Q13). Usually, when we say something is fact checked by a source, the source provides statements of facts. Here, he merely asked for the reaction from Maxey.
Maxey incorrectly stated 39 officer separations during his “fact check” and the Stranger just printed his quote, stating it as fact. It is not. The actual number is 38. It’s a simple error, but it’s ironic that Black boasts of the “fact check” that supposedly disproves my story while using incorrect data. It doesn’t appear Black spoke to anyone at the SPD for his story; instead, he just quotes from the video without fact checking any of the data.
But let’s get into Maxey’s answer, which implies the SPD believes officers are leaving simply over salary concerns. And while compensation is a big issue, officers have told me that’s not why they’re leaving. Indeed, the Everett Police Department offers a $15,000 signing bonus, which gets Black to wonder:
But what if there’s some other reason those 20 officers left? What if there were a $15,000 bonus and the chance to move to a place with a lower cost of living?
That, it turns out according to Maxey, is not a hypothetical but rather a reality. Other municipalities across the state are offering officers incentives, sometimes as high as $15,000, to leave Seattle and join their departments.
Only, neither Maxey nor Black (who is big on fact checking) mentions whether or not officers have actually moved to the Everett PD or if this was a tidbit he was offering to give context to what they’re competing with. What’s the number of cops who went to Everett for the signing bonus? No numbers provided by Black. Lie of omission? I’ve reached out to the SPD for this data and will report it when it comes.
Black further claims pay concerns are “hardly mentioned” in my story. Only, that’s not true. That topic literally occupies an entire section of my report that discusses wage concerns. That section even includes quotes from Interim Chief Best and union president Kevin Stuckey. I even specifically say officers assert there’s “better pay or more support in other departments.”
Still, officers who are leaving or about to leave tell me they’re not doing it for bonuses, but because they don’t feel appreciated and are subject to absurd investigations. A much bigger report on this issue is forthcoming. Black makes no effort to address this by actually talking to officers.
Why this matters
I don’t want this story to become my reaction to silly, dubious claims made by the Stranger, mostly because it can seem petty and I like some of the work Black does. And I don’t even want to spend much time pushing back at Durkan’s office pretending my story is false, because I understand why they’re doing it.
I suspect they know the story accurately reflects the sentiment of many SPD officers. And it’s important for them to address these serious concerns because these officers deserve to have their issues addressed and Seattleites obviously benefit from a fully staffed force given resources they need to do their jobs. By simply dismissing these issues, all they do is further alienate an under-appreciated group of men and women who put their lives on the line every day they put on that uniform. They’re not doing it for the money (it will never be a high-paying job). They do it because they’re called to serve their communities.
I hope the external campaign they’re waging to dismiss the story is just to keep up appearances and save them from future bad stories. I’m fine with them calling the story false if they intend to work behind the scenes to address the concerns of these officers. And, despite her rhetoric against the story, I’m actually pretty certain Mayor Durkan will seriously address these issues. I’m also absolutely certain Chief Best cares.