‘SPD is dying’: What Seattle police officers are saying during exit interviews

Apr 22, 2024, 2:38 PM | Updated: 4:22 pm

seattle police...

Seattle Police officers confer after taking part in a public roll call at Hing Hay Park in Seattle’s Chinatown-International District. (Photo: Ted Warren, AP File)

(Photo: Ted Warren, AP File)

A new recruiting campaign. A streamlined process to speed up the hiring process. Hiring bonuses. Despite significant investments from the city to recruit and retain officers, the Seattle police force has reached the lowest staffing numbers in nearly 70 years.

The Seattle Police Department (SPD) has fallen to just 424 active police officers working patrol, the lowest levels of staff since at least 1957, according to “The Jason Rantz Show” on AM 770 KTTH. Going further, there are 280 eligible to retire based on age and tenure.

Rantz on SPD’s current level of staffing: Seattle has under 425 patrol officers, 280 eligible for retirement

Of the more than a dozen SPD exit interviews in 2023 acquired by MyNorthwest, 100% were of officers who served more than five years with the department, 82% were from officers who served 11-15 years, 73% from officers who served more than 15 years and 64% came from officers who reached 20 or more years of service.

What Seattle police officers are saying as they depart

When presented with the question: What factors had a negative effect on morale in the department, Seattle police officers were nearly united in their responses, according to exit interviews filed in 2023.

“SPD’s political posture and city management in all categories,” one departing officer, a detective who’s been with Seattle for more than 10 years, said in response. “The morale and retention will never be achieved in the political climate of Seattle. SPD is dying and the command staff is along for the ride — watching it die.”

It will be four years this June since CHOP (Capitol Hill Organized Protest) usurped Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, and officers continue to cite that they are still reeling from the repercussions.

“(In) 2020, where everyone hated us, constant struggles with DOJ (Department of Justice) and the Seattle City Council,” a detective sergeant, who served Seattle as an officer for more than 15 years, wrote.

Mike Solan, president of the Seattle Police Guild (SPOG), echoed the sentiment that the effects of CHOP are still felt today within the department. At the third anniversary of CHOP’s closure, Solan stated city leaders at the time “removed our ability to help people” and “their political decisions killed people,” according to KOMO News — referencing the two deaths during CHOP alongside multiple shootings.

But, in terms of police department morale, the damage was done. KOMO News conducted a poll last October and found 64% of respondents still had an unfavorable opinion of the Seattle police, more than three years since the summer of 2020.

“City officials’ attitude towards officers (we are treated guilty first before any kind of review),” another SPD officer wrote. “Supervisors and chiefs not stepping up publicly to defend the officers until all the facts are in, thus creating the public attitude towards us.”

Betsy Smith, a 29-year police veteran and spokesperson for the National Police Association, said Seattle has always been an epicenter of this friction between police and the public.

More exit interviews from SPD: Seattle cop says ‘criminals are running this city’ in brutal resignation letter

“Last three, five years, there has been constant vilification of law enforcement,” Smith said. “In schools, on social media, families, churches — police officers are bad. Police are evil. The justice system is biased. Driving experienced officers away, you’ll just lose institutional knowledge.”

How a Seattle police officer’s role has changed

“The No. 1 concern for officers used to be about safety, regarding themselves or the community,” Smith continued. “Now the No. 1 concern for officers is, ‘Will I be indicted for doing my job?'”

It’s become an undeniable factor in the mass exodus of officers leaving Seattle. In the last five years, the department has lost more than 700 officers — the bulk coming in the last three years. Last year, SPD only hired 62 officers while losing 96.

“Yes, we have had some Seattle lateral (hires), along with WSP (Washington State Patrol) and state DOC (Department of Corrections),” Pierce County Sheriff Ed Troyer told MyNorthwest.

More on Ed Troyer: Pierce County Sheriff not running for reelection

Troyer described Seattle’s environment for police as a place “not allowed to do police work.”

“No support from administration or city. Not holding criminals accountable. The recidivism rate and no bail on major arrests. Rampant drug use and not having the ability to do anything about it,” Troyer said.

One officer, a hostage negotiator who’s been with Seattle police for more than five years, is leaving the department to join Phoenix’s police force, a job he thinks will be a “better opportunity.”

“There is far more support for law enforcement in the state of Arizona and the city of Phoenix,” the departing officer wrote in his exit interview. “The city government increased the funding of the department shortly after the 2020 riots. The department, just like SPD, has downsized but it is still much larger than SPD. I believe this to be a positive as there are more working interactions with patrol and specialty units.

“The culture that supervisors instilled was that an officer cannot get in trouble for not doing anything but can get in trouble, via OPA (Office of Police Accountability), for attempting to do the right thing and the situation going poorly,” the officer continued.

Seattle’s ‘new’ city council

Five of Seattle’s nine council members are serving their first terms in one of the biggest turnovers for the council in decades.

More on the Seattle City Council: Sara Nelson named Seattle City Council president; 5 new members sworn in

In their first public safety meeting last February, the council listed six things they wanted to focus on: More collaboration between the county and state, public health, legal tools, solving issues with vacant buildings, more attempts to curb graffiti and — maybe most importantly — police staffing.

“All of them ran under a public safety platform, which is huge for us and I think it’s huge for our officers,” Diaz said at the meeting, according to KING 5. “We’ve got to be able to figure out how we raise that staffing. It’s really going to be important.”

Still, pessimism persists among those growing impatient waiting for change, Betsy Smith included.

“There’s always going to be anti-cop politicians in Seattle,” Smith said. “Anti-cop rhetoric and anti-crime victim legislation until the political landscape changes. Policing should not be a political issue.”

In total, 73% of obtained exit interviews cited city leadership as a reason for leaving. More than 80% cited staffing issues.

Nearly 40% discussed the lack of a union contract as an additional reason.

More on police union contract: Seattle Police Officers’ Guild reaches tentative contract agreement with city

The love for fellow officers

Another consistency among the exit interviews is how much departing officers cared for their fellow officers and co-workers.

“I was extremely grateful to work with some of the best officers, in my opinion,” a departing officer wrote before listing off close to ten department colleagues who had influence. “There are many more officers that made a positive impact not listed.”

When asked what police officers enjoyed the most during their Seattle tenures, few failed to mention their “brothers in uniform,” citing the friends they made within the department were some of the highlights while working in the Emerald City.

“I had a great run with SPD,” one officer said before his retirement. “I have no regrets. It was the people I worked with that kept me here for 37 years.”

While salary was seldom an issue, according to the obtained exit interviews from 2023, Seattle police officers will soon vote to approve a new union contract. The agreement, which can be seen here, would make the SPD one of the highest-paid police forces in the region with a 23% retroactive raise.

The 23% raise is made up of a 1.3% raise for 2021, a 6.4% raise for 2022 and a 15.3% raise for 2023 as back pay. The last SPOG contract, approved in 2018, gave officers a 17% raise and required the city to spend $65 million in back pay, according to multiple media outlets. PubliCola, which bills itself as “Seattle’s reader-supported source for deeply sourced in-depth coverage of local, state, and regional politics and policy,” published a PDF of the contract earlier this month before the union removed it from public view.

“Is there anything else you would like to add?” the final exit interview question asks.

“I am grateful for the opportunity and I did my best,” a retiring police officer responded.

“Best of luck to all in the SPD,” a resigning officer wrote.

Frank Sumrall is a content editor at MyNorthwest. You can read his stories here and you can email him here.

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