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Opinion: SPD’s ‘exodus’ of police officers is entirely self-inflicted

Seattle police were out in force during a rally called United Against Hate hosted by right wing group, the Washington State Three Percent (3%), at City Hall Plaza on Jan. 5, 2020 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Karen Ducey/Getty Images)

Over the last few months, we’ve seen dramatic testimony from Seattle police officers voluntarily leaving over a movement to defund the department, lobbing criticism at a city they say doesn’t fully appreciate them. But it doesn’t take much effort to see that SPD’s so-called “staffing crisis” is self-inflicted.

Opinion: OPA reports show SPD cops get away with despicable behavior

Let’s first look back on the last couple years of officers leaving SPD. The idea that the “defund” movement is only now driving out good, well-meaning cops is something of a misnomer, given that complaints from officers about not being appreciated by the city’s leaders and residents date back years.

“There are lots of people walking out the door,” one officer leaving the department said in 2018. “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.’”

“Our own city council members call officers ‘murders'[sic] without listening to all the facts,” another officer said in a 2019 exit interview. “It is hard sometimes to stay positive when somedays it feels like some people of Seattle don’t want you there.”

“I refuse to work for this socialist City Council and their political agenda,” an officer said in 2020. “It ultimately will destroy the fabric of this once fine city.”

Similar complaints over low morale and uncooperative city leaders have been an annual occurrence you can set your watch to at this point. Over the last three years, though, the department has actually suffered very little.

According to data gathered by researchers at the Police Scorecard, SPD had more officers per 1,000 residents than 56% of departments in cities with over 250,000 residents in both 2018 and 2019. Over that period, SPD’s funding was more than the city’s housing and public health budgets combined, and in total, Seattle spends more on its police budget per capita than 88% of departments.

Meanwhile, 119 of the top 200 Seattle city salaries in 2019 belonged to police officers, with the department boasting over 1,300 employees making six figures annually. To wit: After a police sergeant drove his unmarked SUV onto a crowded sidewalk last August, he told protesters at the scene that he “used to love Seattle,” but now “it’s pretty [expletive] dirty.” When a protester asked him why he still worked for SPD anyway, he nobly answered, “because they pay me like 200 grand a year to babysit you people.”

As for that uncooperative, police-hating city council — they authorized SPD to offer $15,000 hiring bonuses for lateral transfers in 2019, for a job with a starting salary of over $83,000 (a number that increases to $109,512 in base pay after four-and-a-half years on the job).

That all changed when city councilmembers joined the push to defund the department, right? Well, not really.

Yes, SPD’s sworn officers have now dipped to just over 1,000. But every single officer who’s left the department during the latest so-called “exodus” has done so voluntarily. In fact, as the Council’s Public Safety Chair Lisa Herbold recently pointed out, “to date, there hasn’t actually been a single budget-related lay off.”

Instead, we’ve seen our city’s police officers — who presumably joined to protect and serve — leaving over a miniscule 17% budget cut in 2021 that did nothing to affect the department’s ability to hire and pay its personnel. And despite that budget calling for 35 layoffs within the department, even those have yet to materialize, with councilmembers now split on whether to move forward on those layoffs at all.

Knowing all that, we should be calling this forced exodus what it really is: abandonment.

There’s a reason police officers, firefighters, city councilmembers, and mayors are called public servants — public service is, by design, a thankless job, where members of the public reserve the right to criticize leaders they believe aren’t adequately serving them.

So, how well is SPD serving the public? Evaluating police departments on whether they use less force, make fewer arrests for lower level offenses, solve murders more often, hold officers more accountable, and spend less on policing overall, the Police Scorecard graded SPD at 34 out of 100, the worst of any department in Washington.

Watchdog group received over 19,000 complaints against SPD in 2020

Researchers also found that between 2013 and 2020, SPD officers were 5.7 times more likely to kill a Black suspect than a white one, and 2.2 times more likely to kill a Latinx one. Despite Seattle’s Black population sitting around 7%, 34% of arrests and 24% of police killings in the city have been Black residents. Further quantified, Seattle has more racial disparities in its use of deadly force than 72% of police departments.

Suffice it to say, there are some extremely valid reasons for Seattleites to have questions about the status quo. Claiming that reasonable criticism from members of the public “hurts morale” only serves to crush dissent and dodge accountability in a department where both are sorely needed.

Police officers in Seattle certainly aren’t at all underpaid or underfunded. That means the only logical reason officers have for leaving the department en masse is that they no longer wish to serve the public in this city. And if all it takes is a modest budget cut and the bare minimum in disapproval of an intransigent police department, then perhaps having those officers leave is what’s best for everyone.

Questions, comments, or feedback? Follow Nick Bowman on Twitter at @NickNorthwest to weigh in, or reach him by email at [email protected]

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