Ahead of Seattle Police layoffs, officers are leaving on their own

An increase in retirements and resignations in the department could make budget cuts easier for the Seattle City Council.

Seattle Police officers have been retiring or resigning in higher than normal numbers over the past year, according to the mayor's office. (Lindsey Wasson for Crosscut)

As Seattle faces down a pandemic-driven budget shortfall and a summer of protests, the Seattle City Council’s interest in reducing the size of the police department may be moving forward even without the council’s help.

Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office released new data Thursday that shows 39 members of Seattle Police Department left in September, the highest monthly total since at least 2018, apparently confirming some of the anecdotes of officers leaving the force in higher-than-usual numbers. This comes at the same time that the department has been barred from hiring new staff as part of a citywide freeze. Without incoming recruits to replace resignations, retirements and firings, the result is a shrinking department.

In total, 110 officers have left the department this year. That's only slightly more than in past years, but September's numbers suggest the trend is accelerating. 

Durkan cast this update as a problem — illustrating clearly the philosophical divide between her and some members of the city council.

As activists have pushed council members to reduce the size of the police department in the near term, Durkan has resisted dramatic cuts to staffing. While she has not precluded a smaller footprint for the department in the future, proposed minor staffing cuts in her 2021 budget and has moved some police operations into other departments, she has little appetite right now for cuts to patrol or other speciality units.  

“We cannot be lured into a false choice between retaining young, diverse officers committed to reform and investing in community-based public safety alternatives,” she said in a statement Thursday. “The city must be prepared to meet urgent public safety needs while simultaneously investing in upstream solutions to address the underlying causes of crime and violence.”

The new data about police departures comes just as the council begins its own process of crafting next year’s budget. It will be among the highest stakes budgets in the city’s history. Not only must City Hall grapple with an estimated $200 million shortfall in tax collections for its general fund, but it has also been cast as a chance for Seattle’s elected officials to express their values around public safety and policing.

At the height of the summer’s protest, a majority of the council offered preliminary support for SPD cuts of up to 50%. Most have since backed off such a concrete number, but the intention has been made clear: Police reform is not good enough. Instead, the council has all but promised to make dramatic changes to public safety in Seattle and to do so by moving dollars — both into community organizations and out of the SPD.

What remains unclear is the timing of these changes. 

The council sliced away 100 full-time positions from the police over the summer. At the time, members believed it could achieve that goal by laying off roughly 70 people and allowing 30 more positions to go unfilled, as employees departed during the rest of 2020.

The size of the department, including fully sworn officers and recruits, is now 1,367, down from 1,406 at the end of August. That’s a fairly dramatic reduction when compared with past years. The previous high-water mark since 2018 was 17 in a month. In September 2019, just seven left.

In her 2021 budget, Durkan proposed funding 1,400 positions for the police department. 

Councilmember Andrew Lewis said the attrition does have a positive side in that it can help the council achieve its budgetary goals without ugly fights with the police union. 

At the same time, Lewis said that if the department continues to shrink, then the council would need to act urgently to scale up alternatives, including possibly giving more responsibility to traffic enforcement officers.

“We need to keep our eye on the ball of the additive part of this,” he said. “What are we standing up to go into the void created by the attrition in the police department? Because currently … the police is the only thing that is open 24/7.”

Meanwhile, Antonio Oftelie, the recently appointed monitor of the city’s ongoing police reform efforts under a federal consent decree, called the situation “dire.” He raised concerns that, absent functioning alternatives, the city is digging itself into a hole that will be hard to climb out of. 

“The first thing to do would be to take a deep breath and better understand the short-term, mid-term and long-term impact of cuts to SPD,” he said.

As far as its impact on the city’s ability to end federal oversight of its police department, Oftelie said, “right now it doesn’t look good.”

Over the course of 2020, most of the departures have involved officers who retired. At the same time, sizable number who left were relatively young, with fewer than five years of experience. The mayor says that's concerning because newer officers tend to be more diverse. But about 72% of the officers who left this year were white, a number that’s slightly higher than Seattle’s overall population.

In 2018, Seattle saw a net loss of officers, spurring a concerted effort by Durkan and council members — some of whom are now calling for cuts — to craft new recruitment and retention efforts. 

Those efforts, combined with a new union contract, seemed to be working in the first part of 2020, but the pandemic and the social justice protests dramatically reversed the trend.

While exits from police are not uncommon, they’re often masked by new hires, who move slowly through a training pipeline before becoming full officers. With the city’s freeze on hiring, spurred largely by the pandemic’s budget disaster, the department is seeing a more immediate dip.

If the hiring freeze remains in place, Durkan’s office is estimating that the number of police employees could drop to about 1,350 in the coming months. In a budget briefing earlier this month, SPD staff told council members that reversing hiring trends, especially after a freeze, could be difficult. The process of getting recruits through the academy and training is slow.

In her proposed 2021 budget, which the council will now amend, Durkan wants $100 million directed to community organizations. On Wednesday, she named a task force of people who would advise on how that money should be spent. 

Missing from that list were the names of the activists who’ve pushed hardest on “defunding” the police. From their perspective, Durkan’s apparent unwillingness to cut SPD staff in service of the community precludes participation. 

“We and many others oppose this task force process that mimics real community involvement and input,” the coalition King County Equity Now said Wednesday. “Dozens of Black community leaders have been very outspoken and actively refused to participate.”

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