Seattle police officers confirm in exit interviews: Money isn’t the issue

Jan 18, 2023, 10:08 AM

seattle police exit interviews...

Police follow protesters as they move through the city during racial justice protests on November 3, 2020 in Seattle, Washington. Police say they made at least two arrests, including one driver, as multiple large racial justice groups protested on Election Day in the city's Capitol Hill neighborhood and other areas. (Photo by David Ryder/Getty Images)

(Photo by David Ryder/Getty Images)

In exclusively obtained Seattle Police Department (SPD) exit interviews, departing officers doubled down on the well-documented pressures the department is facing both internally and externally, with multiple references to the city and its elected officials, local media, inner-department toxicity, and lack of career development as reasons to flee the Emerald City.

“I used to be proud to say I worked for SPD. I can’t say that anymore,” a recently retired detective wrote. “The homeless and drug addicts get more support than the officers/detectives get.”

Of all the reasons to leave, compensation was one of the few bright spots of being a police officer in Seattle.

In a question titled: “Do you consider the salary you received to be competitive?” 60% of the exit interviews responded with a yes, or similar answer. Of the 40% unsatisfied with their pay, half stated it was unsatisfactory only when considering the extra hurdles Seattle provided police.

“The salary was competitive with other agencies, but it is not commensurate to the workload and challenges that come with a city the size of Seattle, relative to other agencies within the state,” one officer wrote in response.

Yet, back in Aug. 2022, the Seattle City Council decided — in a 6-3 vote — to add additional financial incentives to recruit more officers. The approved legislation allowed SPD to spend an extra $289,000 on hiring bonuses in 2022, in addition to the $1.5 million already approved earlier in May.

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New recruits to the SPD are eligible for hiring bonuses of up to $30,000 — as long as they are employed within the department for at least five years.

“There are things that won’t be solved by the police,” said Councilmember Tammy Morales, one of the three votes against the hiring bonus plan. “Our homelessness crisis, our need for more affordable housing, our limited access to behavioral healthcare.”

Teresa Mosqueda and Kshama Sawant were the two other votes against police hiring bonuses.

Over the past two-and-a-half years, the loss of more than 400 police officers has depleted the SPD to the point where essential services cannot be delivered promptly and effectively, according to the SPD Recruitment and Retention Plan. As of May 2022, the number of trained and deployable officers — 954 — was the lowest in over 30 years.

With 60% of the released exit interviews being retirements instead of resignations, the department and city officials are expected to closely examine their recruiting process.

A November report from the Police Executive Research Forum (PERF) asserted that police departments and agencies across the country have poorly funded both the recruiting and training processes for officers. Retirements and resignations increased by 45% and 18% nationwide, respectively, while hiring is down 5%, according to PERF.

For many officers, according to the exit interviews, the summer of 2020 changed the department’s view of the city just as much as the city changed its view of the department.

“I’ve enjoyed helping people as a police officer, but with staffing, it became very difficult to do the job,” a detective who was on the force for 20 years wrote. “Morale was just so low. It was hard to just get into the car to go to work. I felt that the department did not fight hard enough to defend officers after the riots. And now department personnel is depleted, and officer detectives are paying for that.”

“The way we always settle,” responded a former officer to the question: ‘What factors had a negative impact on the department?’ But the list didn’t end there.

“Local civilian stakeholders. Councilperson Sawant and her ilk. The city council. Local and national press. The city’s law department,” the officer continued. “The judiciary’s insane judgments in recent years that make policing nearly impossible and drive personal liability through the roof. The state Legislature. The governor.”

Approximately 42% of the police officers exiting Seattle cited local government as the main reason for leaving, with the city council, King County Prosecutors Office, the local media, Mayor Bruce Harrell, Governor Jay Inslee, and anyone involved with the “Defund the Police” movement mentioned in multiple different interviews.

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“Move the department to a different city,” an officer wrote with a smiley face. “The greater [Seattle] area does not realize what a diverse, reasonable, knowledgeable, well-rounded department it is, allowing it to evaporate despite the best efforts of our leadership.”

Leadership within the department remains a subject of internal discourse, as some officers praised their higher-ups while others criticized the authority displayed.

“The leadership made people in patrol feel as though we were insignificant. Patrol was impacted the most by political backlash, but leadership never seemed to address our morale issues,” an officer who served less than 10 years wrote. “Also, when it comes to a decision for patrol, patrol officers were rarely afforded the options to voice our opinions of the department.”

Former Police Chiefs Carmen Best, Kathleen O’Toole, and Gil Kerlikowske received specific shout-outs for their leadership and comradery in the collected interviews.

Another officer used his exit interview to discuss the internal fighting within the department between specific higher-ups and the lack of respect shown by captains and other high-ranking staff.

“The negativity spread within and up the chain of command,” the officer wrote as his answer for what was causing negative morale.

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Multiple officers reportedly felt they weren’t being heard or listened to, according to the exit interviews, including one stating “chain of command not sticking up for officers when they do the right thing” as the least enjoyable part of the job.

“I know our chief was busy, but I know that every correspondence that I sent to Chief Best was replied,” an officer transferring to another Washington police department wrote.

The lack of equipment, specifically vehicles, was repeatedly cited as another urgent matter for the department to solve.

“Our system is broken, and we are just chasing our tails and putting our lives at risk doing so,” an exit interview reply read.

On average, officers spend eight months training before they can patrol the streets alone, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. That means it is likely to take years to fill open jobs within U.S. police departments.

It’s important to remember, despite low-staffing trends and the over-politicization of the subject matter, these police officers left for their own personal reasons, including a five-year SPD veteran who wrote ‘family and I moving to the east coast’ as the reason for leaving their post.

Their least enjoyable part of working for the SPD? “The lack of reasonably affordable and safe parking.”

Amid the grim circumstances facing the SPD, one 37-year police veteran shared their optimistic outlook ahead of their retirement.

“Times are tough. This department is family, regardless of what people say outside or within the department. It will overcome the obstacles.”

MyNorthwest has reached out to SPD for comment.

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Seattle police officers confirm in exit interviews: Money isn’t the issue