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Rantz: ‘Dangerously low’ on Seattle patrol officers, Lake City shooting tested limits

A police officer tells Jason Rantz that the shooting in Lake City could have crippled the Seattle Police Department. (KIRO 7 image)

Last year, the Seattle Police Department experienced a “historically large” number of officers leave the force. This year, the numbers continue to grow, despite the City’s recruitment push, leaving neighborhoods with “dangerously low” number of officers on patrol, which puts citizen and officer lives on the line.

Indeed, the recent Lake City shooting nearly brought the department “to its knees,” according to one cop.

This problem is creating a staffing domino effect. As specialty units within the SPD deal with a staffing shortage, the department relies on “on-loan” officers to make up for the missing bodies, which further strains the patrol numbers.

“The fewer officers actually in a patrol car, answering 911 calls, and/or patrolling the neighborhoods, the less safe the neighborhood is, and the less safe the officers are,” one veteran SPD officer told The Jason Rantz Show on KTTH.

No officer is allowed to talk to me on the record, as none have been given clearance to speak to the media. To protect them from reprisal, I’ve granted them anonymity.

City vastly over-states officers

When city officials talk about staffing, particularly officers on patrol, the numbers they use are misleading, sometimes intentionally.

Based on the latest numbers provided through a public disclosure request, there are 747 officers that are supposed to work on patrol. But, 117 of them, as of the end of January, are on loan to specialty units.

Specialty units are made up of cops not patrolling neighborhoods. They’re not responding to 911 calls, nor are they able to police pro-actively. These officers are placed in units like the Navigation Team, Gang, Traffic, etc.

They’re on loan to the specialty units because those units are dealing with staffing shortages, cops say.

“[Patrol units] are short-staffed,” one SPD staffer told me. “On the flip-side, the horrible thing, there’s so many specialty units that are hurting, too. The Burglary Theft Unit can’t keep up with crimes. It’s horrible all around. We just have so many officers leaving.”

The staffing shortage persists as more and more citizens and business owners speak out about the city’s significant crime issues. Last week, Bartell Drugs CEO Kathi Lentzsch indicated the company would no longer expand in Downtown Seattle due to extensive crime and theft.

“When you look at the number of violations and illegal activity that has occurred in a very short period of time, I’m not sure we have enough police to handle it,” she told KIRO 7 TV.

Lentzsch is right.

“Staffing is a joke,” one mid-career officer told The Jason Rantz Show, complaining that his precinct is often at or below minimum level of staffing. This is the number of officers they need on duty.

“We are probably at one or two above minimum staffing three days a week, which means we are at or below minimum staffing the other four days,” the officer told me. “There isn’t less crime or less calls for service, and I work in some of the fastest growing residential areas of the city, yet the minimum staffing numbers continue to go down. We are asked to do more and more with fewer people.”

This concern is echoed at other precincts as well. When they can’t reach the minimum, they usually ask officers to work overtime. But the process can be frustrating.

“They usually ask in the last 30 minutes of a shift,” the officer explained, “so my mind is already in ‘going home’ mode, not working another nine-hour in a city that hates me and the work I do.”

Lake City shooting could have crippled department

To make the staffing crisis clear, a third officer, pointed me to the recent Lake City shooting that left two passersby dead. Officers did a terrific job of addressing the situation, but it left them vulnerable elsewhere.

“[The Lake City] incident nearly took our department to its knees,” the officer explained to the Jason Rantz Show. “We had units from other precincts coming up to take calls. Had another significant incident occurred anywhere, we would have been out of people.”

Like others, this officer complains of his precinct’s staffing.

“Simply put… the staffing is horrible,” the officer complained. “I would say that on most days, squads around the city are running at minimums or just above. They have been better at giving overtime when they are below, but these spots are not always filled because people are simply getting tired and burnt out. It is pretty bad when only third of the department is actually on the streets handling calls for service and being subjected to all of the nonsense.”

The nonsense? An overzealous Office of Police Accountability that investigates minor issues, treating them as serious problems, and a city council that offers them little respect.

Detectives may start to patrol

Staffing has become such a concern, SPD held patrol refresher training for detectives earlier this year. While the SPD says this training is to back-fill, if necessary, there are no plans to put detectives on patrol. Officers don’t buy that.

“They took a list of about 400 detectives and put them through patrol refresher training in February and March, with an eye towards putting them back on the street for a few days a week because they don’t have enough [on patrol],” the veteran officer explained.

Calling the patrol numbers “dangerously low,” the officer sees the writing on the wall.

“Why would they take a list of 400 detectives, who all have active case loads, and unplug them from their assignment, for three days, put them through that training… if they weren’t considering putting them out on the street?” the officer asked. “This hasn’t ever been done [in my time], except for special events.”

The ‘exodus’ continues

Last year, officers warned of the “mass exodus” of officers leaving the force. The situation isn’t getting much better.

Last year, the SPD saw 110 officer separations, which includes resignations and retirements. The long overdue contract, agreed to in September 2018 and codified the next month, did little to retain officers. The SPD saw seven resignations in the last two months of the year.

This year? The numbers are bad, with 22 total separations equally divided between resignations and retirements.

These numbers were not easy to come by. Months after the request, I’ve asked, repeatedly, for Executive Director of Human Resources Michael Fields to discuss the numbers. Two months later, he wouldn’t return emails until I indicated I was moving on the story without him. Only then did he briefly respond to a question made weeks earlier.

“No one wants this job anymore and I can’t blame them one bit,” an officer explained. “I feel like 85 percent of my day is dealing with homelessness and things around our transient population. It is wearing us out.”

Despite a clear staffing exodus, Mayor Jenny Durkan, purposefully using old data, claimed last year that staffing was in the “net positive” and that “we’re recruiting more people than are leaving.”

This was demonstrably untrue. Now, after months of my reporting, Durkan and the council are finally acknowledging the low staff, recently agreeing to a hefty signing bonus for laterals and new recruits. It’s not working. HR, so far, has struggled to recruit officers.

“Now that we have a contract, it’s supposed to help everything. It’s not,” the veteran officer told me. “The money is nice, but it’s about being perceived as being valued by your employer, the City. You have a council member calling us murderers, with the other eight sitting silent. That says everything.”

Mayor Durkan’s office did not return requests for an interview.

What next?

Police don’t anticipate much changing in the next several months, with significant fear that a very high number of officers are due for retirement this year, which will create a potentially untenable staffing situation. None of the cops I spoke to for this piece think the City will start to treat them any better.

Some are waiting, anxiously, for the next council election, which could see two police candidates — former Lieutenant Brendan Kolding of District 3 and current Officer Sergio Garcia of District 6 — earn their way into office. A third former officer, Jim Pugel, is also running, but the cops I’ve spoken to sincerely dislike him, calling him a “disgrace.”

As for the public, they will continue to experience the same level of service from an SPD that’s understaffed: Long wait times for non-emergency calls. And with fewer patrol officers, and a Seattle City Attorney unwilling to prosecute criminals, we’re unlikely to see a decline in criminal acts.

Listen to the Jason Rantz Show weekday afternoons from 3-6 p.m. on KTTH 770 AM (or HD Radio 97.3 FM HD-Channel 3). Subscribe to the podcast here.

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