Seattle police aptitude test under scrutiny amid recruitment struggles

May 20, 2024, 6:34 PM

A Seattle Police Department vehicle in Green Lake...

An aptitude test used by the Seattle Police Department is being questioned as a potential reason the city is struggling to recruit officers. (Photo: KIRO 7)

(Photo: KIRO 7)

An aptitude test used by the Seattle Police Department (SPD) to screen applicants is being questioned as a potential reason the city is struggling to recruit new and experienced officers. The test is part of a broader bill to be voted on by the Seattle City Council on Tuesday to improve police recruitment.

The legislation sponsored by Seattle City Council President Sara Nelson calls for an independent commission to establish testing standards and to “seek” a public safety testing service used by law enforcement agencies in King County and neighboring areas. She is referring to a test used by other law enforcement agencies that reportedly has a higher passage rate than the one Seattle uses.

“SPD continues to lose more officers than it’s able to hire, and 2023 was no exception,” Nelson said when introducing her legislation a month ago.

A memo to council members, written by Seattle City Council Staff Analyst Greg Doss, for the upcoming vote indicates that investments in police officer recruitment starting two years ago have not increased hiring.

“SPD yielded approximately half of its annual hiring targets, reaching a high of only 61 hires out of 1,948 applications in 2023, a conversion rate of 3%,” Doss wrote.

Ninety-seven officers left the force in 2023, resulting in a net loss of 36. Applications in the past five years have declined from a high of 3,118 in 2019, before the Black Lives Matter and George Floyd protests, to a low of 1,895 in 2022. However, the conversion rate of applicants becoming police officers has remained at the same 3% level.

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Seattle police test used to screen applicants

For the last two years, Nelson and Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell have been exploring ways to improve police recruiting. One of the screening elements for new applicants is a test administered by the city’s Public Safety Civil Service Commission.

The test is mandatory for all applicants and is intended to measure a person’s behavioral response to certain situations.

“You actually don’t have to have knowledge of what a police officer is all about to pass the test,” Public Safety Civil Service Commission Director Andrea Scheele said.

The test has been in place since 2012 when the SPD was under the full consent decree for biased police practices.

“There are several components, some are cognitive, some are emotional intelligence assessments. They determine if applicants meet the minimum qualifications important for becoming an entry-level police officer,” Scheele said.

The test is the second test in the application process, which includes a physical agility test, oral board interview, background check, medical evaluation, psychological exam and a polygraph test. It’s up to SPD to determine what to do with the applicant’s test results.

“We give the list of passing candidates and their contact information to Seattle Police and it takes over from there,” Scheele said.

The current test comes from the National Testing Network (NTN) but is not widely used by neighboring agencies or throughout the country. Twenty-seven agencies in the state use the test, but another 160 use the Public Safety Test (PST) provided by competitor, Industrial Organizational Solutions.

More news: Seattle passes contract with SPD amid concerns over lack of public comment

SCC president calls test ‘competitive disadvantage’

With so many agencies competing for the same qualified candidate, Nelson called the testing situation “a competitive disadvantage.” She compared the Public Safety Test to the college SAT test, whose results can be distributed instantly to all agencies where an applicant wants it sent.

“When they take the PST test once, it’s on file and they can designate which agencies get that score. And if they have to use a test that nobody else is using, that’s a disincentive to include Seattle in their application process,” Nelson said.

Another factor at play is the passage rate. Scheele said 70% of those who take Seattle’s NTN test pass. The pass rate for the Public Safety Test is 90%, according to the Seattle Times, quoting the company’s founder Jon Waters.

KIRO Newsradio has not yet independently confirmed the 90% number.

With a higher passage rate, more applicants could move on to the other evaluations SPD requires to become an officer. If an applicant fails Seattle’s NTN test, a job with SPD is most likely out of reach.

Nelson initially asked for her legislation to mandate a switch to the Public Safety Test but backpedaled after staff legal counsel reportedly told her the move would be overstepping the council’s boundaries on Scheele’s independent Public Safety Civil Service Commission.

Alternative test being discussed

Nelson is now asking Scheele to review the PST test as an alternative for SPD applicants.

Report: Seattle mayor hires firm to probe SPD sexual harassment, discrimination claims

Scheele said she is in the process of her “due diligence” validating and reviewing modifications to customize the PST to meet Seattle’s standards.

“I’ve been feeling pressure for some time to work as hard as I can to help the City of Seattle hire more qualified police officers, but this pressure is not new, it’s in a different form for sure,” Scheele said.

The commission can take input on what should be included in the test but has sole discretion over what goes into the test. Nelson does not believe that using the PST with its higher passage rate would lower the standards for becoming an SPD officer.

“I have not seen any reason why using this test would result in a lowering of standards,” Nelson said. “There is no evidence for that.”

Doss told council members that Snohomish County and the cities of Lake Forest Park and Kennewick used both tests in their hiring process.

“I don’t think anyone wants to lower the standards of that exam,” Scheel said.

Matt Markovich often covers the state legislature and public policy for KIRO Newsradio. You can read more of Matt’s stories here. Follow him on X, formerly known as Twitter, or email him here.

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