Rantz: Police staffing crisis in Tacoma is nearly as bad as in Seattle, morale ‘decimated’

Oct 20, 2021, 6:01 PM | Updated: Oct 21, 2021, 10:51 am
tacoma, officers, tacoma police, manny ellis, Urquhart...
The headquarters for the Tacoma Police Department. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
(AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

The Tacoma Police Department is dramatically understaffed as crime continues to surge across the city. Police officers are sounding the alarms about what this means for Tacoma.

The TPD employs only 322 officers after 32 officers left this year so far. That’s well above last year’s 24 separations. This equals just about one officer per 687 residents. What’s worse, these departing officers aren’t being replaced with recruits. The department has a staggering 42 vacancies.

The issue is almost as bad as Seattle’s police staffing crisis. But Tacoma doesn’t get as much attention. A group of Tacoma residents and a police union are trying to change that.

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Tacoma residents cry out for help, but where is the city?

Around 200 concerned Tacoma residents and business owners gathered for a community meeting last Wednesday night. Their complaints were severe and numerous — all a reflection of a severely understaffed police department. They started a petition to help bring a spotlight to their concerns.

Many complained that when they call 911, police don’t respond, sometimes for hours. They are scared of the rise in crime, including several recent homicides, assaults, property crime, and even a 193% increase in arsons. The issues are made worse by growing and dangerous homeless encampments that officers can’t clear, and a Pierce County Jail that isn’t taking bookings due to COVID.

Detective Henry Betts is the Local 6 union president for the Tacoma PD. The group invited him to speak and listen to their concerns. While he was encouraged to see a community come together hoping for change, he was disappointed he couldn’t offer much.

“I hear a lot of our business and community leaders talking about all the ways that they’ve called and asked for help from the police for crimes and horrible things that they’re witnessing and the lack of the ability for the police to respond to it and how upset they are with it. It’s just an overwhelming feeling that they’re fed up with not being able to get enough service,” Betts explained on the Jason Rantz Show on KTTH.

So why can’t police field the surge in crimes? For the very reasons the crime surge is happening in the first place: police cuts, a staffing exodus, and a lack of political leadership.

Explaining the crime surge

To Betts, there are simple reasons for the crime surge: Criminals are taking advantage of an underfunded and understaffed police department, while anti-police activists have impacted officer morale.

While the city did not defund the TPD by much last year, there were cuts. Now, a handful of councilmembers say they need to invest more as soon as possible. Beyond writing a public letter, however, officers don’t believe there will be any follow up. Add to the mix the overzealous statewide policing reforms, widely panned as driven by anti-police fervor from progressive politicians, and it has created a nightmare for the police.

You can see the effects the crime surge has had on the city when you drive around town.

“It’s about the community. You drive around the community, and it’s just different now,” Betts noted.

Betts says he and others have been vocal about their concerns, but he says the city response has been “crickets.”

“The truth is, the city doesn’t want to discuss those things with us to really address the problem,” Betts said. “You know, recently, in the last two or three months, several councilmembers penned a letter talking about recognizing the problem, and I’m encouraged by that. But if you watch the meetings of the council after that, they were pretty well berated for going outside of normal council methods to get that letter out there to the public.”

Tacoma Police dealing with exceptionally low morale

Tacoma officers know they’re not delivering the kind of service the community expects. And no matter how hard they try, they’ll always fall short when they have so few resources and staff.

“We’re starting to see the community rise up and want that help, and it’s so hard for us not to be able to provide what they really need,” Betts explained.

Recently, Betts says officers started a swing shift one Monday to find 80 911 calls pending in the city. It’s why response times can hit two hours long or longer.

“That’s 80 people calling 911, and we don’t have a cop to send yet,” Betts explained. “That’s horrible for the community. It’s not acceptable, and it makes us really feel bad about how we’re doing our job, but we need the resources to do better. We do.”

Consequently, officer morale is “decimated,” according to Betts.

More Tacoma officers are expected to leave

Betts says more officers will leave with morale so low, a lack of political support, and too few resources.

“We have people leaving at incredible rates. … There are other ones who are just holding a little bit longer before they put the paperwork in, but it’s known that they are leaving,” Betts said. “And we can’t hire to replace those people, and it’s the lack of resources that has really worn people down. But if you look at city leadership in the lack of support and the message that is constantly received from downtown … is we’re not supported by downtown, not supported by the city.”

Some on the city council say they’re trying to address the problems by angling for more funding.

“We have to look at the reality of what’s happening on our streets. We need to put the patrols there, and we need officers who are engaged, who are known to the community, who have built those relationships, and we’re looking at officers to engage in that type of community policing that helps prevent crime,” City Councilmember Lillian Hunter told Q13 FOX.

But not everyone shares that view. Anti-police activists have been able to push Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards into re-imagining the police. And by the time the city course corrects — if it does — it might be too late.

Did you like this opinion piece? Then listen to the Jason Rantz Show weekday afternoons from 3-6 p.m. on KTTH 770 AM (HD Radio 97.3 FM HD-Channel 3). Subscribe to the podcast here. Follow @JasonRantz  on  Twitter,  Instagram, and Parler, and like me on Facebook

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Rantz: Police staffing crisis in Tacoma is nearly as bad as in Seattle, morale ‘decimated’