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Seattle uses guesswork to rebuild police force

The City is awaiting an overdue examination of the structure of the Seattle PD. Credit: Mike Lorden/Flickr

When Kathleen O’Toole took the reins of the Seattle Police Department, jumping from one end of I-90 in Boston to the other in Seattle, she inherited a department tasked with policing one of the most rapidly changing cities in the country, while simultaneously working its way through a settlement agreement with the Department of Justice. Mayor Ed Murray hired her as the person who was going to make this thing right. This department, Murray has said many times, would be a model for urban policing.

To make this transition easier, the Seattle City Council commissioned a study  — at a cost of $500,000 —  to determine the ideal size and structure of the Seattle Police Department. SPD selected Berkshire Advisors in Ohio to carry it out. It would be a map for how many officers to hire and where the department could function more effectively.

But more than a year into O’Toole’s tenure, that study has still not materialized. It’s so late that the Seattle City Council has gone into another round of budget talks without it, putting councilmembers in the slightly awkward position of either blindly authorizing new police hires based largely on an anecdotal sense of need, or risk pushing the department even further behind where many say it already is.

Amid Seattle’s skyrocketing population, Murray has images of a department that walks more beats and shakes more hands. Murray has a big vision and, according to his spokesman Viet Shelton, “Part of it is to have a more engaged and stronger presence in the community.”

And, likely, that means more officers. Compared to other cities of its size, like San Francisco and Boston, SPD is understaffed. Call times for lower priority crimes are slow. But without an objective look at the department it’s unclear how many officers the city needs, and to what effect.

On the campaign trail,  Murray declared the Seattle Police Department would add 100 new officers over the course of his first term. Shelton didn’t provide a specific reason for why 100 officers, but said, “It’s my understanding that it’s both a number that’s a strong goal to reasonably increase police force to get the police force closer to the operational goals of the mayor and the reality of how many officers can be trained up.”

A study commissioned by the city in 2001 concluded that SPD needed to grow. After a surge in hiring in 1990, the department had gone largely unchanged until 2002 and actually shrank in 2003 due to economic recession.

Part of the problem was that, compared to other cities, Seattle did not pay well. According to City Council President Tim Burgess, recruits were crossing the pond to Bellevue or heading south to Renton where the pay was better.

In 2008, the city rolled out pay raises for officers with a hopeful goal that should sound familiar: “SPD is committed to hiring 20 to 25 recruits over and above retirements in each of the years, 2008 through 2012,” read an excerpt from SPD’s neighborhood policing plan. But along came the Great Recession and those plans were shelved.

So based purely on history, the City and the department can be relatively certain that, when the study does arrive, it will say the department needs more officers. A Council central staff employee told councilmembers in a budget briefing last month there is a “high likelihood that the officers are needed.”

But the fact remains that there are unanswered questions about the structure of the police department. For example, sworn officers hold positions in HR and budgeting. Is that a best practice when law enforcement positions – investigations, patrol – are hurting for staff? Or could a civilian handle those roles?

The decision facing city officials is whether or not to release to SPD funding for 25 new officers – sitting in the general fund where the council can keep its watchful eyes on it – with relative confidence that its needed, but without actually knowing where it will be most useful. Councilmember Bruce Harrell says yes. Burgess says no.

Shelton says the mayor’s office is “committed to working with the council to get us to a point where we are able to continue to build on the progress.”

Maintaining a police force is not the same as filling desk jobs. For one, when SPD says it’s committed to increasing the force by 20 to 25 officers, that means it actually needs to hire close to 80 new recruits. That’s thanks to attrition – a fancy word for officers leaving the force, either through retirement or firing.

But it takes a recruit about 9 months to complete all of the training – five months at the Washington State police academy in Burien and four months of field training with SPD. That lag time poses a few problems. First, anything can happen on that nine-month path — it is not uncommon for recruits to fail out of the academy. And if a recruit gets hurt or sick and can’t fully participate in training, he or she has to start all over, even if already four months through the academy.

More significantly, though, the lag means SPD is playing something of a guessing game. The department is not so much filling the empty slots from last year, but filling the vacancies they think will be open next year.

Hiring patterns, as the above economic recessions show, have not been consistent — booming at times and lagging at others. At the back end, that means attrition isn’t consistent either. Officers hired at the same time tend to retire around the same time as well. In a semi-annual report, auditor for the Office of Professional Accountability, the semi-independent police oversight office within the SPD, Anne Levinson called this phenomenon a “bow curve.” That ebb and flow can put SPD in catch-up mode.

As if this wasn’t complicated enough, the Seattle Police Department has an agreement with the academy to reserve seven spots per class for SPD recruits. In a standard year, the academy has 9 classes, or space for 63 SPD recruits. With 50 plus officers leaving the department a year, that’s not enough to grow the department at the pace the mayor would like.

The problem is not insurmountable: According to academy Commander Rick Bowen, they have space for 15 classes per year. But to do so, they needs to go out and secure additional funding, another obstacle that cannot be hurdled overnight.

The Seattle Police Officers Guild has off and on called for SPD to create its own academy to circumnavigate what it sees as a bottleneck. Shelton too referenced the difficulties of hiring over attrition given the restraints at the academy. But according to Levinson, the problem could be easily solved with more consistent hiring practices over the years. Even during periods of economic trouble, she argues the department should hire the same number of recruits so it is never in this position of playing catch up.

But the fact is, it is playing catch up and now the city is faced with a question of timing and principle. According to Burgess, SPD and the city are still not clear where staffing levels should be. Currently it’s at about 1,300 officers, but that number is likely outdated. “What we wanted to learn from that study is ‘what is that number?’” he says. “What size police force should we have?”

As of October 1, SPD had added seven new officers for 2015. That’s below the goal of adding 25, but City Budget Officer Ben Noble promised the department is in fact on track to hire 23 officers over attrition by year’s end.

The mayor included enough funding in the 2016 budget for 5 officers above attrition. Councilmember Harrell argues that withholding the rest of the funding as a “reprimand” for the delayed study doesn’t make sense when it is obvious the department needs the help.

But Burgess and Councilmember Nick Licata suggest it’s not about issuing a reprimand, but precedent. The Council said it would not release funds for hiring more officers until it had this study and it would be disingenuous to go back on that deal. “This is another example of the council needing to assert itself,” says Licata.

Another factor at play is that, with the results of this study and the addition of new officers, some of the suggested rearrangements within the department could be subject to negotiations with the police union. When the study was commissioned, it was meant to aide in these negotiations – giving the city hard proof from an outside source of how resources should be spread.

But if the department gets its new officers before the study comes out, they will be plugged into the current system. If the study then says this or that rearrangement should happen and this officer should go here, it is much more difficult to backtrack on decisions that have already been made rather than having that information at the beginning of bargaining.

Whether the study is delayed because of the City or Berkshire Advisors is unclear. Shelton would only say they expect the study to be finished before the end of the year. Representatives from Berkshire did not return calls for comment. But $500,000 isn’t chump change. And Chief O’Toole’s welcome gift is getting a little stale.

Correction, 11/11/15, 8:15 AM: A previous draft of this article implied the Seattle City Council chose Berkshire Advisors to carry out the study. In fact, while the Council allocated the funds, the Seattle Police Department selected Berkshire Advisors.

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