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Durkan pitches $1.6M plan to attract and keep police officers

The mayor also laid out 12 recommendations to address low morale and a shrinking force.

Seattle's police force has been shrinking for years—partly driven by young officers leaving to work for other cities—but a proposed budget aims to reverse the trend by growing the police force to 1,436 officers by the end of 2020, just shy of its 2017 headcount. (Jovelle Tamayo for Crosscut)

Mayor Jenny Durkan said Tuesday that she wants to spend an additional $1.6 million to recruit and retain officers at the Seattle Police Department, which has struggled to maintain its ranks in recent years.

Making the announcement as part of a slow rollout of her 2020 budget proposal, Durkan offered up 12 recommendations for retaining officers and growing the shrinking department. Some $800,000 of the total would go toward improving police leaders’ communications skills.

The proposed budget addition and recommendations come on the heels of an abysmal year for the department’s staffing numbers. At a time when Durkan has made clear she would like to add enough officers to keep up with the city’s population, the department saw a net loss of 41 officers in 2018, from 1,445 to 1,404, according to numbers provided by the mayor's office. City officials said this year’s numbers look better than last, but as of Aug. 31, SPD had lost one more officer than it had hired.

"The Seattle Police Department — like many other departments across the nation — has been facing staffing shortages and challenges in recruiting and retaining officers," Durkan said in a statement. "Our city deserves the best quality police services, and the members of the SPD deserve to be supported in their careers."

The mayor’s proposed budget would grow the department to 1,436 officers by the end of 2020, just shy of its 2017 headcount.

City staff blames, in part, national trends, including a wave of retirements, a tight labor market and a decreased interest in law enforcement employment. But the national picture doesn't tell the whole story.

Driving the decrease in SPD staff has been young officers — with three to five years’ experience — who are leaving Seattle for other departments. Combined with lagging recruitment, Seattle’s numbers shrank as surrounding departments added officers. Poor morale has garnered the most headlines and, as Crosscut reported earlier this summer, is reflected in feedback the mayor’s office has received since. Among the officers who responded, the vast majority said they would not recommend working at the SPD to friends or family, a major problem when it comes to recruitment.

“Common issues included a perceived lack of support and understanding from city leadership and command staff, frustration with accountability systems, limited opportunities to provide feedback on policies and procedures that affect their work, and confusion with the role of law enforcement and how success is defined in today’s political climate,” reads a report produced by the mayor’s office outlining the new recommendations.

In a letter to SPD staff, sent Tuesday, Chief of Police Carmen Best wrote, "One thing that was heard loud and clear: this city, and its elected officials, need to make it better known that you have their support."

Durkan’s office also faulted the recruitment process, including how and when possible recruits can test into a department. Between 2017 and 2018, just 2% of applicants went on to become officers.

Seattle recently approved a new contract with the police officers union and signed off on a $15,000 hiring bonus, both of which could start to pay dividends when it comes to recruitment. But the mayor's office report, created by a group of employees from the mayor's office, the police department and human resources, laid out additional steps the city should take. 

Most of the mayor's 12 recommendations are soft, geared toward improving the public’s understanding of police work. The mayor’s office is also pushing to bump recruitment efforts among city employees and those peripherally involved with law enforcement, such as parking enforcement officers and dispatchers. Other recommendations are intended to streamline processes to improve the conversion rate of applicants to officers — quicker background checks, flexible schedule for testing.

The most explicit proposals, however, relate to morale. The most expensive, at $800,000, is a training program for potential leaders aimed at improving their people skills. Durkan’s office also floats the idea of switching to four 10-hour shifts for officers from five eight-hour shifts, although that would likely require the city to hire significantly more officers.

One major complaint from officers is their feeling stigmatized by complaints not sustained by internal investigators. Over 90% of complaints against officers were not sustained in 2018. In response, Durkan recommends that unsustained complaints should be wiped from an officer’s “card” — used to gain promotions — after several years. The complaints would still be retained by the department’s inspector general and within the internal affairs office.

Durkan’s proposed budget allocation will be put to the Seattle City Council this fall as part of its yearly budget deliberations. 

In a statement, the city's civilian Community Police Commission said it was reviewing the final report. "We’re committed to working in partnership to find practical solutions that beneficial for both officers and for community," the commission's co-chairs said in a statement. 

The challenges to the department’s ability to retain officers come as the expectations placed on police officers are changing. In Seattle, officers’ work involves shepherding to social services people who don't have shelter or who are struggling with mental health and drug addiction issues. Police, as well as hospitals, courts and the fire department, are confronting issues they were not designed to handle.

With that in mind, Durkan proposed a number of initiatives meant to reduce emergency services’ role in some social issues. She’s proposing expanding the city’s civilian officer program and one pretrial diversion program for young people.

Durkan also proposes adding more mental health workers to the Seattle Police Department. And in an effort to reduce 911 responses to local shelters, Durkan is proposing permanently funding five nurse positions in locations with the highest 911 call volume.

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Durkan pitches $1.6M plan to attract and keep police officers

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