KTTH OPINION

Rantz: Seattle Police Department has under 425 patrol officers, 280 eligible for retirement

Apr 3, 2024, 5:45 PM

Seattle police staffing...

A Seattle Police Department vehicle (Photo: Jason Rantz, KTTH)

(Photo: Jason Rantz, KTTH)

Seattle Police Department (SPD) staffing is much worse than what local leaders have admitted to the public, putting a renewed spotlight on a crime crisis the city is not able to fully tackle. The department hasn’t seen such low levels of staff since at least 1957.

The department has only 424 police officers working patrol as of December 31, 2023, the date when the most recent data was collected. The SPD, in an email, confirmed the staffing data.

Of the 424 officers, at least 66 are currently eligible for retirement, and 84 are over 50, according to a Human Resources document obtained by the Jason Rantz Show on KTTH. Patrol is rounded out with 11 police student officers, 22 lieutenants and 76 sergeants.

Just because officers are listed as “patrol,” that doesn’t mean they’re actually responding to 911 calls or proactively policing. For example, there are four assigned to communications administration. And, as of March 31, an additional 81 officers were listed on the HR unavailable list, which covers officers who are out for extended periods. Officers only appear on the list after being absent for a minimum of 14 days.

No matter how you parse through the data, total staffing is also at emergency levels. And hiring is nowhere near keeping up with separations.

How dire is Seattle Police staffing?

The city is experiencing crisis-level staffing it hasn’t seen in decades.

At only 913 deployable officers, the SPD says staffing is at the lowest level since 2009. It’s actually much worse. The Jason Rantz Show on KTTH obtained an SPD staffing document from 1958 showing authorized personnel on Dec. 31, 1957. It was 925 at the time.

For context: pre-COVID-19, the staffing goal was considered roughly 1,500-1,600. It’s since been revised down to approximately 1,400.

The current Seattle police staffing numbers reflect data from between October 2023, when a public disclosure request was first submitted, and December 31, 2023, when the SPD provided updated staffing data to the city council. However, according to multiple sources, the March 2024 staffing is about the same as December 2023.

SPD staff can barely keep up with crime

Patrol officers barely keep up with 911 calls. Often, precincts are at or below staffing minimums. At times, officers from other precincts must provide supplemental patrol to other parts of the city.

An officer in the North Precinct, speaking on the condition of anonymity, explained to The Jason Rantz Show on KTTH just how understaffed the department truly is.

“Our staffing problem will continue to get worse. There are several officers looking to leave for other departments still,” the officer said. “If the general public knew just how few cops are on the streets at a given time, they would be disgusted.”

He added that he would guess the North Precinct is at or below staffing minimums 70% of the time. He noted that “15 years ago, Third Watch North would routinely staff about 30 officers at night. Now, you’re lucky to have 13.”

The SPD HR document lists only 34 police officers total for the North Precinct Third Watch. When you factor in vacation, time off for training, maternity/paternity leave, sick calls, etc., the officer said it’s easy to see why there are so few officers who regularly patrol city streets.

Untenable workloads for individual units

Beyond patrol, the Seattle police staffing crisis has meant units are becoming inundated with untenable workloads.

Property crime, burglary and larceny or theft have hit record highs in recent years. Motor vehicle theft in 2023 hit 9,175 — the highest since 2008, the last publicly available date for records. Juvenile crime has also surged during the same time period. Yet there are only 13 total sworn police officers and two sergeants who cover the Burglary/Theft & Juvenile Unit across all precincts. Only nine are working with the General Investigation Squad and only one is under the Auto Theft Department.

Reported bias incidents have hit record highs in the last three years. However, there is only one officer in the Bias Crimes Unit.

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Seattle police officers are getting old

Most alarming is the number of aging officers who are eligible for retirement.

Inclusive of the entire SPD, including Specialty and HR’s unavailable list, there are 280 staff eligible to retire based on age and tenure. Both the West and North precincts have the most eligible for retirement, at 23 each.

The average age of staff eligible for retirement is 55. The oldest officer is 72, with the Burglary/Theft & Juvenile Department.

If even a fraction of these officers retire in 2024, the department would struggle to function, especially since new hires are not keeping up with separations. As troubling, these officers would take with them decades of collective experience, community relationships and institutional knowledge.

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When will the mass exodus of officers end?

There has been a mass exodus of Seattle police officers since 2018 due to disgust with city leadership and, at the time, a lack of contract. But the exits accelerated with the Black Lives Matter and subsequent police defunding movement in 2020.

In the last five years, the department has lost over 700 officers (the bulk coming in the last three years). And the department is not keeping up with the separations. The SPD only hired 62 officers in 2023 but lost 96.

The takeaway from a recent Seattle City Council meeting about staffing was that the city needs to offer better incentive packages. They believe higher pay will recruit more officers. Higher salaries or additional perks will also keep officers within the department. While those efforts would not hurt, over a dozen officers speaking with The Jason Rantz Show on KTTH noted the exact same concern: it’s not solely about wages, but overzealous, politically-driven accountability abuses that are most concerning.

While officers would like higher salaries, they believe the city, and in some cases, their leadership is looking for any reason to cite officers for misconduct. The Office of Police Accountability, for example, said it will investigate officers who violate traffic laws, such as driving on a bus-only lane when an officer is responding to an emergency.

Seattle Police Officers Union weighs in

The Jason Rantz Show on KTTH broke the news over the weekend that the city and the Seattle Police Officers Guild (SPOG) came to a tentative agreement on a new contract. If approved, it would make Seattle police the highest paid in the state.

Seattle police have worked without a contract for nearly three years. It will address the accountability concerns, in addition to reasonable concerns about pay. SPOG President Officer Mike Solan said he expects the contract, with a new city council perceived to be more supportive, should help staffing. But he warns it may take decades to fix the shape the department is in.

“We’ve been sounding the alarm here from the union, publicly and privately with the city, that this is a major, major issue,” Solan exclusively told The Jason Rantz Show on KTTH. “It’s a direct reflection and a cause-effect of politicians in the past, 2020 that city council, that we’re finally basically taken out of office, the majority of them. When you target police officers just for being police officers, for an ideology and activist agenda, this is the result and the community suffers. Public safety suffers. And Jason, this is gonna take decades to dig ourselves out of this hole. And it was completely avoidable. That’s the sad reality. They’ve decimated an outstanding police force.”

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New Seattle City Council could help address Seattle police staffing crisis

Solan said he’s also concerned about the number of officers retiring. He notes “the loss of that knowledge base, you can’t replace it.” But he thinks a new friendlier city council can help move recruitment along.

“We’re looking forward to a more friendly council,” Solan explained. “Definitely a more moderate counsel based in common sense. Obviously, the jury’s still out in terms of their voting habits, because they’re brand new. But we’re remaining hopeful that they’re moderate and based in common sense.”

Seattle City Council President Sara Nelson has long signaled a willingness to do what’s reasonably necessary to fully staff the SPD. She’s waiting on the SPOG membership’s vote on the contract before weighing in. But it hasn’t stopped her from guiding the council towards a better relationship with police.

“The single most important thing we can do to improve public safety and support downtown recovery is build SPD’s shockingly low staffing levels back up by hiring more officers faster and retaining the ones we have. For the former, I’ve developed legislation to improve the officer hiring process which will be heard in my Governance, Accountability, and Economic Development Committee on April 11 – so stay tuned. As for retention, we continue to lose trained officers to jurisdictions with higher wages because their contract expired three years ago. Council cannot act (nor can we comment) on this agreement until SPOG membership votes on it,” Nelson said in a statement to the Jason Rantz Show on KTTH.

SPOG is holding contract information sessions with members this week. There were three on Monday, one on Tuesday, and there will be another one on Thursday. The vote, in theory, could come as soon as the end of the week. Depending on the results, the contract would then go to the Seattle City Council for a vote.

“Brighter days are ahead,” Solan said. “And we’re looking forward to those days for sure.”

More from Jason Rantz: City of Burien sues King County for breaking contract in homeless camping ban

Listen to The Jason Rantz Show on 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 Jason on X, formerly known as TwitterInstagram and Facebook.

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Rantz: Seattle Police Department has under 425 patrol officers, 280 eligible for retirement