Rantz: Seattle police ‘Unavailable’ list grows, city an emergency event away from catastrophe

Dec 13, 2021, 6:30 PM | Updated: Dec 14, 2021, 3:52 pm
(Photo courtesy of Seattle police/SPD Blotter)
(Photo courtesy of Seattle police/SPD Blotter)

The Seattle Police Department staffing emergency continues. The city is one emergency event away from a serious catastrophe. But leaders and the media remain mostly silent.

The so-called “HR Unavailable” list has grown considerably as of Dec. 10. This list features officers who are on extended leave and cannot be deployed. Officers only appear on the list after being absent for a minimum of 14 days.

Concurrently, the department continues to struggle to fill vacant patrol slots to meet minimum staffing numbers. Every single precinct, in every single watch, has open slots for nearly every single day in December.

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Where are Seattle officers?

The HR Unavailable list was at 126 on Oct. 20, two days after the COVID-19 vaccine mandate deadline passed and Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan pulled nearly 100 officers from duty.

Now, the HR Unavailable list has ballooned to 155, according to an SPD source. This is on top of the 335 exodus of officers since 2020.

The list includes illness, disability, and maternity and paternity leave. But officers burning accrued vacation or sick time will also appear on the list. It’s a move an officer typically takes before separating from the department. The SPD will likely see several separations before the end of the year.

Many of the officers that are out of service come from patrol. It’s causing a staffing crisis.

“We’ve seen that list explode since the riots due to a lot of the injuries, of people not being able to get surgeries scheduled on time because of the pandemic, and a number of [other] factors,” Seattle Police Officers Guild President Mike Solan told the Jason Rantz Show on KTTH. “The political environment we’re in … created a situation in our community that we don’t have enough cops. Period.”

A spokesperson for the SPD says they cannot comment on the number of officers on the list. However, they note it creates a clear staffing issue.

“Not speaking to any numbers, but every officer that is on that list is an officer that isn’t available to answer 911 calls and can add to the response time for any call,” SPD spokesperson Detective Patrick Michaud tells the Jason Rantz Show on KTTH. “As we have stated in the recent past, the SPD remains in a staffing shortage, and we continue to need additional people. This reason is why we continue to advertise for new recruits as well as ask for additional funding from the city council.”

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Augmenting shifts

The SPD has asked non-patrol officers to volunteer to augment open shifts. This is necessary for precincts to meet staffing minimums, which is still not ideal. Barely meeting staffing minimums is why it can take upwards of an hour for police to respond to some 911 calls.

Every precinct is impacted.

For example, the Southwest Precinct’s 3rd Watch has shift openings for every day in December. Just before the start of the month, an all-staff email went out asking for volunteers to take on open shifts.

The same problem impacts the West Precinct 3rd Watch. Before December, an email went out to staff showing upwards of nine patrol slots for the entire month. On Dec. 13, the precinct needed seven officers, whereas Dec. 24 and 25 needed eight and nine officers, respectively. On seven days in the month, they needed to fill one sergeant and five officers for nightlife emphasis.

“The city cannot hire enough people to solidify the vacancies and the continued vacancies,” Solan explained. “That, to me, is alarming. Not just because we’re losing members. But it’s creating a working condition issue. Every watch, every shift, every precinct. That creates a safety concern for the cops who were just answering that basic 911 call. Are there going to be enough people to back each other up in terms of creating a safe, to a degree, a safe call?”

Silence from our leaders and the media

The mayor’s office has been mostly silent on this issue. After putting out a few press releases, Durkan has been quiet.

The Seattle City Council, meanwhile, is uninterested, to say the least. They shrunk the SPD budget by nearly $50 million since pre-pandemic levels. And they only funded the SPD to hire 125 officers in 2022. But the department is short roughly 500. It’s fair, however, to say SPD Command Staff would be grateful to get close to 125 new hires next year.

“We’re not big enough to make up those drastic losses,” Solan added.

Most media outlets have been silent, too. Outside of KTTH Radio locally and FOX News nationally, local outlets have barely touched the subject.

Instead of focusing on the crisis, outlets like KING 5 focused on seven re-hires of officers who previously left the department. It was almost exactly the same story that KOMO offered a month earlier. It even included an interview with the same officer KOMO featured. While the rehires are a positive development, it doesn’t come anywhere close to addressing the crisis.

Stage 2 mobilization

Though the staffing crisis has worsened, the SPD moved to Stage 2 mobilization. They were previously at Stage 3.

Whereas Stage 3 allowed for full deployment of all on-duty sworn personnel, Stage 2 mobilizes slightly fewer personnel for full deployment. For example, Stage 3 can pull investigative union personnel from their assigned duties to respond to 911 calls. Stage 2 does not.

SPD didn’t explain why they made the shift, given that crime continues to surge and there’s been no meaningful change to the staffing situation. However, Solan, answering an unrelated question, cited staff burnout and the difficulty for officers to use vacation time around the holidays as reasons why officers are expected to quit in larger numbers this year (and early next year).

One emergency away from a catastrophe

The staffing crisis would be dangerously exposed should the city experience a major public safety emergency.

When one major incident occurs, SPD must pull staff from multiple precincts to respond. If that incident is an emergency, like a mass casualty event, the city would be virtually police-free so that officers could respond to the scene of the crime.

This new reality leaves communities vulnerable to criminals who exploit the staffing crisis. As police converge on, say, Pioneer Square to deal with an emergency, Bitter Lake, Rainier Valley, and Alki Beach are almost certainly without police protection.

The sad reality is that it might take this kind of emergency to show the city the dangerous staffing levels. Perhaps local leaders and the media can put some sense of urgency on addressing the issue before we get to that emergency event.

Update as of Dec. 14, 3:50 p.m.

The number of Seattle cops listed as “unavailable” is now up to 165.


Listen to the Jason Rantz Show weekday afternoons from 3–6 pm on KTTH 770 AM (HD Radio 97.3 FM HD-Channel 3). Subscribe to the podcast here. Follow @JasonRantz  on  Twitter,  Instagram, and Facebook. Check back frequently for more news and analysis.

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Rantz: Seattle police ‘Unavailable’ list grows, city an emergency event away from catastrophe