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Mayor, experts warn of dire situation as SPD loses ‘unprecedented’ number of officers

Seattle police at a recent protest. (Derek Simeone, Flickr Creative Commons)

Being a cop is hard. Being a cop in Seattle is even harder. And being a cop in Seattle in 2020 amid ongoing protests and calls for defunding the department has evidently created an environment too much for some to bear, and is being linked to an “unprecedented” number of officers leaving the department in recent months.

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The Seattle Police Department typically loses five to seven officers in September. In 2020, the number of officers exiting the department soared to 39 in that month, according to a staffing and attrition report released Friday.

The September numbers include 36 fully trained officers, and three officers in training, but do not reflect another 14 officers added to the extended leave roster as they use up sick and vacation time awaiting their permanent exit from the department, as KTTH’s Jason Rantz reports.

Those combined losses left SPD with just 1,203 officers in service at the end of last month, down from 1,247 a month earlier. The overall number of sworn officers and recruits in training plunged from 1,406 to 1,367 during the same period.

As of the end of September, 110 SPD staff have left the department in 2020, including now-retired Chief Carmen Best. The bulk of those exits – more than half – have been in patrol, split nearly down the middle between retirements and resignations. The data shows a large number of those exits are also among those new to the job, who have been part of the SPD’s effort to recruit a more diverse force that represents BIPOC communities.

Despite Seattle’s significant growth over the past decade, the city’s police force has not grown to keep pace. Between 2010 and 2020, a total of 72 new full time positions were added, but more than 50 of those were mandated as part of the consent decree, with the rest meant to beef up patrol. During that 10 year period, SPD saw a net increase of about 25 officers, but the number of sworn officers in service actually declined by 35.

In 2013, SPD had about 80 officers per 100 thousand residents. In 2020, that number has declined to just about 65, and is expected to drop below 60 by 2022 if the current hiring freeze remains, in addition to cuts totaling 70 officers pushed for by city council.

If the city annualizes the 70 layoffs and continues a sworn officer hiring freeze in 2021, SPD’s deployable staffing level could drop as low as 1,072 officers in service by 2022, a net change of 221 officers from April 2020, even if hiring resumes January 1, 2022.

“We will continue to improve policing and reimagine community safety in Seattle by shifting some responses to community-based alternatives and civilian programs like HealthOne or Community Service Officers,” Mayor Jenny Durkan said.

“But the City also needs a sufficient number of officers who can respond to the most urgent 911 calls in all parts of our city at any time of the day,” she added. “We are losing an unprecedented number of officers, which makes it even more critical that we recruit and retain officers committed to reform and community policing that reflect the diversity and values of our city.”

The national calls for a reimagined approach to public safety are a welcome discussion according to the mayor’s office, but the city must maintain a level of public safety service as those changes are created and brought to scale.

“If we don’t act now, we’ll soon see undeniable impacts to 911 response times and investigative services. It could also impact the department’s ability to sustain the gains and meet the requirements of the federal Consent Decree. The Mayor is deeply concerned by the fact that some of our youngest officers – those who joined the department knowing it was under a federal consent decree – are leaving at an extremely high rate. These are the exact officers we want to keep as we transform the department. They’re the ones who entered the department with an emphasis on de-escalation training and community-based, constitutional policing,” Kelsey Nyland, a spokesperson for Durkan said.

“We cannot be lured into a false choice between retaining young, diverse officers committed to reform, and investing in community-based public safety alternatives. The City must be prepared to meet urgent public safety needs while simultaneously investing in upstream solutions to address the underlying causes of crime and violence,” she added.

The new federal monitor overseeing the consent decree voiced concern over the numbers and their impact on public safety in the city.

“It does look very difficult. In fact, you could maybe even say, dire if we take a long-term perspective,” explained newly-enstated federal monitor Antonio Oftelie.

“From the perspective of the monitoring team, there could be difficult decisions that SPD would have to make that would affect the provisions of the consent decree and whether or not SPD can meet those provisions,” he said, explaining there are certain thresholds that must be met as far as staffing and specialty units under the agreement with the Justice Department and the court.

But Oftelie says his concern goes beyond the consent decree, as he pointed to the roughly 200 officer gap where staffing levels should be, with only about 1,200 deployable officers right now, compared to the target of 1,400.

“The gap is concerning, in and of itself. For near term, that’s a challenge,” he explained. “If you look at the midterm and long term, it becomes quite dire, though. There’s at least a 24 month lag time from the point of which SPD can recruit and hire and train officers and have them on the street and patrol. And so if there’s budget cuts now that flow through the next two or three years, it really will be a decade before the Seattle Police Department can catch up to even the baseline of where they should be.”

“That baseline really is much lower than what many cities across the nation have for the number of officers per 100,000 residents, and so it’s already really tight. In the midterm, it will become likely there would big service implications across the city, and long term would be really dire for Seattle, because just maintaining the quality of life in Seattle will be at risk,” he warned.

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His message to all of those making these decisions on budgets and staffing is not to take rash action before truly understanding the consequences.

It’s a message echoed by Dr. Jacqueline Helfgott, Director of the Crime & Research Center at Seattle University, who feels SPD has been caught up in the national outcry over policing that followed the killing of George Floyd, without getting credit for the significant progress the department has made over the past decade.

“It’s really been understated in the media, the fact that Seattle Police have had co-responder teams since 2010. They’ve been developing their crisis intervention units and response since 1998. And just last year, we’re able to add additional co-responder teams, there are now five co-responder teams, where a police officer and mental health professional respond to incidents involving a behavioral crisis,” she said.

“There’s many different developments that have occurred in Seattle Police over the years that have created a situation where things that have happened in the national media have what I would argue unfairly impacted Seattle Police,” Helfgot continued. “And I know that people have had incidents and issues raised with things that have happened in the protests, which have been extremely unfortunate, and we need to address those, but there’s accountability processes that have been put in place, and we need to see how those accountability processes can address those incidents.”

Erin Goodman is with the Sodo Business Improvement Area and South Precinct Advisory Council isn’t surprised by the exodus.

“These numbers are even worse than I was expecting,” she said. “We are facing an unprecedented situation where we potentially do not have enough officers to handle the more than 800,000 911 calls a year, and that’s completely concerning. We as a city are going through a conversation about reimagining what police looks like and who should be responding to what types of calls and that’s a really important conversation for us to have.”

“However, we will still need a trained police force to be able to respond to serious crimes, we have rape, murder. In SoDo, just in the last month, we’ve had a fatality hit and run, we’ve had a shooting, we’ve had numerous assaults, and those all require a police response in a timely and safe manner, and when we look at the number of officers that are leaving, we are risking not being able to have a response to those types of crimes,” explained Goodman, who is also a member of the Community Police Commission.

Deputy Federal Monitor Monisha Harrell, who has championed police reforms at the local and state level, including I-940, also was not surprised by the numbers.

“It is going to be very tough, very challenging to be a law enforcement officer right now, and it’s going to be very tough to be a law enforcement officer in Seattle. You care about the community, you care about the work you’re doing, and also you have to take care of yourself in your family, and if there are conversations that are going on, around the shrinking of the departments, and there are other departments that are looking for officers, and are expanding, even potentially — there’s a certain amount of security that may come with going to another department where those conversations aren’t as salient,” explained Harrell, who says the budget is not her job.

“First, the most important part of the role is to review what actually is constitutional policing? And how do we get to better policing, which is what the community wants. The community wants leaders in the community, who can police equitably across all stations of life, and so if that’s the priority, then it’s not my job to look at the budget for that. There are things that law enforcement does right now, that one they don’t want to do, and two, they are not best equipped to do, and if there are things that we can take off of their plate, and some of that budget or funding would follow that work, then we have to explore that. I think the idea is exploring what is the best fit for the city, and then figure that out,” said Harrell.

In a recent city council budget session, interim Seattle Police Chief Adrian Diaz stressed to the council the importance of maintaining a 1,400-strong force to keep response times around the targeted seven minutes.

“Each drop below [1,400 officers] will mean either slower response times, larger caseloads or types of crimes we can no longer respond to,” Diaz warned, adding that those issues will only snowball if the hiring freeze initiated in response to the pandemic continues into 2021.

“I do not have enough officers right now to handle the work we are asked to do,” Diaz said. “The call analysis will identify some of the work that can be shifted, but the alternative resources to handle those calls will not be there January 1, 2021. They won’t be there December 31, 2021. We have to bridge the difference.”

Council Budget Chair Teresa Mosqueda questioned that analysis, pointing out that the larger conversation about shifting certain calls away from SPD in favor of a mental health, traffic, or other non-armed response should mean a reduction in the size of the department.

“If we’re effectively having a conversation about transferring those calls into another area, is there not a willingness to recognize that the type of sworn officers — with guns –that number could inherently go down?” Mosqueda asked Diaz.

Short answer: No, at least according to Diaz, who stressed that SPD had already been stretched thin with staffing at 2010 levels. It’s why there has been the push to increase the size of the force for the past several years.

But councilmembers felt that was tone deaf.

“I’m a little concerned that we’re starting this conversation from the place of ‘it’s 1,400 officers or bust,’” said Council President Lorena Gonzales. “I just don’t think that’s going to be helpful.”

In the meantime, other sources within SPD tell KIRO Radio the number of officers exiting the department is actually much higher than this report reflects, as is the number of cops draining their vacation time as they anxiously await an exit from the department.

Follow Hanna Scott on Twitter or email her here

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