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Rantz: Logs reveal Seattle police frequently respond to ‘priority calls’ only

Seattle police on Capitol Hill. (Tiffany Von Arnim, Flickr)

Staffing at the Seattle Police Department is stretched so thin that many times, across the various precincts, officers will only respond to priority calls.

The problem has seen a dramatic increase over the last decade. It’s a significant reason why officers can take hours to respond to routine citizen concerns that, while not immediate emergencies, impact quality of life.

Up until June 26, 2019 (the last date with data reported), on all but 10 days in that month, the SPD could only respond to priority calls in at least one precinct for a period of time.

Priority calls (or as many officers call them, “priority ones”) generally include emergencies in-progress (or happening near the time of the 911 call), with a suspect description. If someone calls to report an issue of domestic violence, for example, the call is handled as quickly as possible. This also means officers won’t quickly respond to calls, for example, about a drug deal on a street corner or if you wake up to a car break-in.

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“Last night … it was only ones [we could respond to], and even then, we had a very hard time getting to those,” one SPD officer told me. “This has a significant impact on public safety because when this occurs most, if not all, officers are tied up on calls and your emergency might not get handled.”

Per SPD policy, priority call handling “is used when on-street resources from one or more precincts are depleted significantly below normal staffing.” According to Seattle Police Sergeant Sean Whitcomb, it is “frequent occurrence; it happens with a degree of frequency.”

A priority call handling log, obtained by the Jason Rantz Show on KTTH, outlines just how frequent this happens. In May 2019, on all but eight days, the SPD was only responding to priority calls in at least one precinct for a period of time.

SPD

On some days, like May 15, they were on priority calls for just 10 minutes citywide. But on other days, like on May 14 in the West Precinct, if you got home to find your garage broken into without evidence it was in-progress, you would have waited at least eight hours for cops to arrive, as they only handled priority calls from 5:40 p.m. to just after midnight.

Sometimes, the SPD goes to priority calls because of an in-progress situation. An attempted suicide-by-cop on January 19 forced the West Precinct into just priority calls for over three hours. On June 25 in the East Precinct, a shooting forced them into priority calls for roughly 10 hours.

Other times, it’s because their precincts can’t meet minimum staffing levels. In the South Precinct on May 16, for example, they reverted to priority calls for over three hours for that very reason. In the first 26 days of June, there were four documented instances in at least one precinct of low staff that caused the priority calls only.

And this situation has gotten considerably worse over the last few years.

In all, through June 26, Seattle police were on priority calls 142 times in at least one precinct in the city. In 2018, at this time, they were only at 50 instances, in 2017 at 52 instances, and in 2016 at just 31 instances. Ten years ago, in 2009, the number for the entire year was just 24 (and just 10 by June 26).

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Why is this happening so frequently? It seems, in part, more crime requiring more staff. At the same time, the department is dealing with what Seattle police officers routinely described as a “mass exodus” of cops quitting or retiring.

“It’s fair to say our staffing does not always match the call volume,” Whitcomb acknowledged. “But at the same time, we know that, which is why we have a policy [to handle these situations] … We do plan for this. It’s not unusual for a major event to happen that requires a large number of resources. We have a plan to ensure we’re handling other 911 calls, while asking people to delay reporting or use alternative ways to report.”

While the SPD has a plan in place, the workload is still taking a toll on officers.

“To put it simply, we don’t have enough officers on the streets and it poses a serious safety risk to both the public and to officers who are going to serious calls without the proper resources,” an officer told me this week. “This summer has been crazy and hectic [and] has no signs of slowing down. Officers are getting burnt out. We do not have enough people to properly handle all of the calls for service. Officers are working harder than ever to do what they can … there are only so many holes in the ship they can fill before it sinks.”

The concern from many officers is what happens if there are two competing emergencies. In March 2019, after the Lake City Shooting, an officer told me at the time that another emergency could have taken the “department to its knees.” But there was also a much more recent example.

The officer explained staffing issues during two criminal incidents on July 14. A 2 a.m. brawl erupted near the Seattle Center left one man dead, killed by a gunshot wound. About 45 minutes later, a woman was stabbed to death at Cal Anderson Park.

“This one event [Seattle Center brawl] took several officers, from all over the city, to get under control,” the officer explained. “Now at the same time a homicide comes out in Capitol Hill and there is simply no one available to respond. Therefore, this call held for several minutes and the victim was unable to receive medical attention from SFD until SPD could make the scene safe. Now, I don’t know if this victim could have survived her injuries had [we arrived] there faster … but it is possible she could have.”

This officer’s opinion is just that, and has not been substantiated by the SPD at this time. Of course, the issue isn’t just about handling concurring serious, in-progress crimes.

When you wake up to a smash-and-grab on your Toyota or a homeless encampment that’s growing in the park across the street, you expect a reasonably quick Seattle police response. And if the SPD was staffed properly, some of these on-going issues could be better addressed. From a citizen perspective, the annoyance is understandable. We’re taxpayers and part of the SPD’s role is to provide services beyond addressing emergency situations.

The SPD is doing what they can to recruit new lateral officers, including offering a generous bonus package. But those offers have been, so far, less enticing as the SPD and the mayor’s office had hoped. The reason, if you talk to cops, is simple: money isn’t why officers are leaving. They’re leaving because of a lack of support from the Seattle City Council, notably Councilmember Kshama Sawant. According to more and more officers I’m hearing from, there are also issues with Lisa Herbold and Mike O’Brien.

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This month, Chief Carmen Best took a rare political stance, calling out the City Council for their role in the dwindling force.

“We are losing good people, and we know that it’s because they feel like they are not supported by public officials,” Best said at a news conference. “It highlights the fact that we have some really critical staffing issues. And I don’t need to see another survey or exit interview to know that one of the issues is that we really need the support of our public officials and our public for the officers.”

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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