As the Port of Seattle looks for its next police chief, officer attrition defines debate between finalists
The search for the Port of Seattle’s next police chief has been narrowed to two candidates: Interim Chief Michael Villa and Seattle Police Department (SPD) Captain Eric Sano.
Both spoke at a panel Monday to address their proposed solutions to problems ranging from officer attrition to police response to homelessness.
One of the critical topics discussed was the ongoing staffing crisis police departments face in Washington. Over the last two years, SPD has lost approximately a quarter of its officers. The city has hired 13 officers through March of this year, while 43 have resigned.
“The recruitment of police officers is a problem nationwide,” Sano said during the panel. “And it’s just not exclusive to the Port of Seattle. So, the question then becomes, how do we improve that? While we may need to look at hiring bonuses and retention bonuses to be competitive with other police agencies in the region, I believe the best way to raise recruitment and to have people have a desire to work at the Port of Seattle is in how we market the department.”
Sano highlights three tentpoles he would focus on as Police Chief — talent development, employee recognition, and port experience. Sano also stressed the importance of diversity and treating all officers with respect, equity, and dignity.
“Imagine, coming from Southeast Asia and seeing among the officers a Cambodian officer that you can converse with or imagine stepping off a cruise ship and seeing an East African officer or Latino officer or an Eastern European officer that speaks Ukrainian, Russian, or one of the other Slavic languages,” Sano said. “We need to go into these communities of color and recruit young men and women for police officer positions and really brand ourselves as embracing diversity, equity, and inclusivity.”
Villa used his platform to state his plan to hire and retain officers with his four pillars for recruitment: competitiveness, marketing, retention, and long-term goals.
“We’re not going to be out of the staffing issue for many years. Therefore, we have to look at the younger generation. They will be our future leaders and law enforcement professionals,” Villa said. “And so, I, as well as my staff, seize opportunities to speak to those in our middle schools and high schools. A key strategy for both retention and recruitment is to create the best work environment where people want to come and work. A place where they are respected, where they are valued, where their input is sought and listened to, and where they are engaged, a part of the team.”
One of the questions from the public was about addressing Seattle’s urgent homelessness problem. Mayor Bruce Harrell’s “One Seattle Homeless Action Plan” has six objectives to combat a crisis that was declared by the city’s leadership as a “state of emergency” nearly seven years ago.
“I recognize that homelessness issues are a huge concern, particularly in the public spaces in the airport,” Sano said. “Now, I currently sit on a multidisciplinary team in the city of Seattle. It’s an inter-department team that specifically deals with homelessness, encampments, and RV villages that have become more and more present in many of our city streets and open spaces. I truly believe that this team approach is the best way to address the homelessness issues. We utilize a holistic approach involving outreach, housing assistance, and human services to help each person that is unsheltered.”
Villa’s focus to combat homelessness stretched across ideals of providing resources for those suffering from homelessness, working with both police and crisis coordinators to remove trespassers, developing co-responder teams, and using the LaGuardia Airport in Queens, NY as a model to follow.
“We must ensure public safety on our properties is an integral part of the port’s mission. And it’s saying that we do so with compassion and care for persons experiencing homelessness or in crisis,” Villa said. “As the interim chief of police, I’ve worked with my team and collaborated with a poor leadership to initiate, propose and implement several strategies that are compassionate while prioritizing public safety. The best example of this is leading my staff to develop and implement a three-year strategy on reducing trespassing and increasing the safety at the airport.”
The Port began recruiting for candidates earlier this year and expects to make a final decision this summer following the panel.