As Seattle continues to lose police, new report finds mixed results for hiring bonus program

Mar 30, 2022, 6:20 AM | Updated: 3:53 pm

Seattle police protest...

Seattle police at protest in 2020. (Getty Images)

(Getty Images)

The Seattle City Council is gearing up for another debate on one of the linchpins issues of public safety: how to stabilize the Seattle Police Department’s staffing levels and whether hiring bonuses should play a role therein.

Last week, interim Seattle Police Chief Adrian Diaz reported that Seattle police continue to lose more officers than its gaining: the SPD has only been able to bring on seven officers since January, whereas 34 have separated.

Last year, former Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan handed down an order that authorized Seattle police to spend on lateral and new hire bonuses.

Mayor Harrell ends SPD hiring bonuses; council approves retroactive recruitment dollars

In recent weeks, the council has signaled its interest in bringing back the program. While the legislation in question does not design the program — and therefore does not stipulate exact dollars amounts — it would authorize the council to leverage its existing budget to field new and lateral police recruits.

Preempting a vote on the legislation, Councilmember Lisa Herbold requested that the Council Budget Office report on the success of the bonus program from last year.

The report covers multiple city departments that have used hiring bonuses as a recruitment strategy. Concerning the SPD, it concludes that the department “did not experience an increase in hiring since implementing a hiring incentive into their process in October 2021.” That finding is presented alongside several caveats, among them that the SPD did experience an increase in the number of applicants, although they ultimately did not materialize into hires.

“To me, what is important is looking at the increased interest, as reflected in application, in signing up for tests, actually taking the test, going through every single step of the hiring process,” Councilmember Sara Nelson, the sponsor of the renewed hiring incentive push, told MyNorthwest.

For specifics, the councilmember pointed to Diaz’s recent public safety presentation: SPD saw 17 applicants in January. However, only one— a lateral hire— matriculated.

Summary findings of the budget report offer that the timeframe of the study— Durkan issued the order in October of last year, and it effectively continued through January— is such that “there is not enough conclusive data to determine if hiring bonuses were successful in increasing hiring and further exploration would be required.”

“I do not think that the memo that came out of the budget office is an indication of the need for a staffing incentive program. We have an understaffed police department. Crime is going up. We have to accelerate the hiring of new officers,” Nelson offered.

Nelson affirms that the limited timeframe of the audit is the reason its results do not bear out a positive relationship between cutting checks for officers and adding more recruits to the SPD.

“I would argue that the number of hires is not a meaningful metric for evaluating the incentive’s effectiveness,” Nelson wrote in an internal memo to the council.

“SPD’s hiring process is a minimum of six months long and includes an initial screening just to apply, a written test, psychological and physical assessments, a background check, and an oral exam (the “Oral Board”) and multiple interviews.”

“It is cyclical, with defined application periods and limited testing dates. So by my logic, it would have been impossible for SPD to have hired anyone who applied during implementation between October 29th, 2021 and the beginning of January 2022.”

Last week, Mayor Bruce Harrell offered the following consideration of the bonus program as a recruitment tool:

“Incentive bonuses have come up. I’m not fully convinced that is the enticer,” Harrell told KIRO Newsradio.

“It might be,” he added. “What we’re looking at is talking to the officers themselves and talking to public safety advocates … What we’re looking at is a comprehensive package that we’ll develop before the budget.”

The council’s 2022 budget appropriates funds for 125 new hires. Nelson is skeptical that the SPD will meet that quota, and, therefore, views the incentives as an intuitive next step to subsidize the cost of living in Seattle for prospective officers as the SPD attempts to compete for hires with other local departments. She also notes that its approval would represent a symbolic gesture of good faith that Seattle’s culture welcomes police.

“A hiring incentive program is a form of a signal that we are welcoming, we will appreciate you coming here, and working for the people of Seattle,” she explained. “Seattle’s an expensive city in which to live. It’s not just getting a check when one signs the dotted line that will make all the difference. It’s not everything, but we can use every tool in our toolbox. This is one of them.”

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly attributed the filing of the hiring incentive report to Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda. 

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As Seattle continues to lose police, new report finds mixed results for hiring bonus program