Glut of Seattle police captains frustrates rank-and-file officers

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Police Chief Kathleen O'Toole at a press event with command staff and city and federal officials: Too many brass and too few officers?

Amid public complaints of a Seattle Police Department stretched too thin, there is frustration among rank-and-file officers regarding the growing number of highly compensated captains in the ranks.

The focus of those concerns is a growth in the number of captains. There are now 27 holding the rank, up from just 20 as recently as 2012. The increase in high-ranking officers has been attributed to a desire for more oversight of the force, but restrictive rules protecting officers from demotions are also a factor.

There is no doubt, generally, about the need for improved leadership and change within the department. The city has promised the U.S. Department of Justice significant reforms to address the use of excessive force and to assure bias is kept out of policing. But some question whether the department is structured as well as it should be and whether the growth in captain positions, which pay some $178,000 a year, is necessary.

Amid the internal grumbling, the department is waiting on a much-belated analysis of its staffing numbers and structure, a study that is meant to help it better allocate resources. SPD public information officer Sean Whitcomb said he couldn’t comment on the proper number of captains until the arrival of that study.

Last year, while deep in carrying out a consent decree with Justice and coming off the controversial appointment of Interim Police Chief Harry Bailey, Mayor Ed Murray hired Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole as a reformer. One of her biggest steps toward making changes came in March of this year when she announced she was hiring four new assistant chiefs, two from outside the department and one from the rank of lieutenant. It had been a breathtaking 35 years since an assistant chief position had been filled by anyone other than a captain within the Seattle Police Department.

While the value of new blood had been generally acknowledged, the Seattle Police Management Association (SPMA), the union representing the department’s leadership, had threatened an unfair labor practice complaint over the rolling back of restrictions on hiring outside the department. But O’Toole and the City struck a deal with the union, promising more internal leadership training as a way to assure officers of opportunities for career growth. Ultimately, O’Toole was largely hailed for both an impressive bargaining feat and a taking a significant step toward breaking the department’s group-think tradition.

What was not addressed specifically, however, was the future of the assistant chiefs O’Toole decided to replace. While Bailey was only an interim chief, he had made permanent appointments of assistant chiefs. So, when O’Toole took Bailey’s place, she was forced to demote Bailey’s team.

Assistant chiefs serve at the pleasure of the chief, so O’Toole is free to replace any of them without cause. But if they are demoted in the absence of specific performance shortcomings, Washington law guarantees they return to the rank and salary they held before. All four of Bailey’s assistant chiefs, therefore, returned to the rank of captain.

Captains, moreover, are protected from replacement without a reason. According Captain Mike Edwards, president of SPMA, the movement to and from assistant chief hadn’t previously been an issue, because the promotion of a Seattle captain would necessarily lead to an opening for the outgoing assistant chief. However, because O’Toole hired from outside the department and promoted from the rank of lieutenant, she suddenly had four outgoing assistant chiefs with only one position opened up. Perhaps there was hope that at least some of them might retire, but none did.

There were immediate questions from the Seattle Police Officers Guild, the union that represents SPD’s rank-and-file lower officers. As O'Toole's changes became public, SPOG President Ron Smith told Crosscut, “We have a glut of captains."

The question then became whether we would see a lot of “special assignments” in the ranks of captain. Since 2012, SPD has ten new captain positions. Three of those are positions directing rebranded versions of older units, but seven of the units are brand new. Some, such as the Force Review Section, appear to be responses the consent decree. Another, Data Driven Policing, may reflect a department looking to modernize itself. But the department has also added additional captains in Human Resources and Community Outreach.

The four former assistant chiefs have moved into longstanding captain positions, such as precinct captain. But since their arrival, there has been a significant amount of shuffling among the captains already there.

The additional captains come with additional cost. Captains are paid an average of $178,000 a year, about two and a half times the starting salary of an officer. Combined, the 27 captains demand about $5 million a year in salaries, about $1.3 million of which is paid to the seven captains over the 2012 number.  And $720,000 a year goes to the four former assistant chiefs demoted by O'Toole.

Whitcomb confirmed that the department has more captains now than is usual, but reiterated that the staffing study, already months late, would answer questions of value.

When asked if he thought the number of captains was a problem, Edwards, a captain himself, said, “From my perspective? No. I’ve seen the organization change over the years. We’re in a much more heightened state. To have oversight you’ve got to have the positions for it.” But when asked if those captains were being put to the best use currently, he said he couldn't answer.

“The real question there is, since these adds came on, have other things needed to be cut?” said Edwards. “The short answer is yes.” Edwards says the most obvious side effect has been a skimming of overtime and slower replacement of things like cars and computers.

Although the staffing study is yet to arrive, the general consensus is that it will say SPD needs more patrol officers. The department was recently slammed in the Seattle Times for its slow response time to a lower priority crime. In an attempt to deal with this longstanding issue, the department recently introduced its Real-Time Crime Center, a data driven attempt at making the department more effective and efficient.

“We’re hurting for cops,” Guild President Smith said Thursday. “It’s gotten worse and worse and worse, and then it angers the public when they show up late for a low priority call. That’s not the officer's fault; it’s the city’s fault.”

Without the staffing analysis, the officer shortage is anecdotal, but the anecdotes run deep. In addition to the Times’ article, spikes in crime on Capitol Hill have been met with calls for more officers. At a meeting two weeks ago in the International District, Deputy Chief Carmen Best was peppered with questions about the state of the Donnie Chin investigation and why the neighborhood didn’t have a stronger police presence.

Perceiving feast in some departments and famine in others,  Smith directs his frustration upward. “The fact that we have a group of captains cast off into an office somewhere sitting around playing cards for all intents and purposes,” said Smith, trailing off. “Their benefits and wages would cover overtime. I don’t know for the life of me how they can have a surplus of captains.”

But for Smith, the solution may have more to do with changing the laws around bumping than the state of the consent decree.

In one of his systemic reports from September, Police Monitor Merrick J. Bobb, tasked with overseeing the department's reform efforts, criticized the department's sergeants, lieutenants and captains for not properly chronicling mid-level uses of force. "Chief O’Toole has a very difficult job with the consent decree," said Captain Edwards.  And, said Edwards, "That’s where it gets fuzzy" about where resources should be spent.


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About the Authors & Contributors

David Kroman

David Kroman

David Kroman is formerly a reporter at Crosscut, where he covered city politics.