A barrier stands outside of the Seattle Police Department’s West Precinct on June 10, 2020 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by David Ryder/Getty Images)
The Seattle Police Department (SPD) is not the same police department that pre-dates COVID-19 and the murder of George Floyd after 300 officers have left in the past 18 months and 100 new cops were hired. That’s a net loss of 200 Seattle police officers with many of the rank and file rookies.
But most on the Seattle City Council and among the public that speaks out in their meetings say that’s a good thing.
“Funding SPD hiring bonuses with money currently dedicated to community-led public safety efforts is unjust, and a complete betrayal of council’s commitment to stop funding police over community needs,” said one person who spoke during public comment.
“It’s an insult to consider giving hiring bonuses and retention bonuses to a department that can’t figure out how to end racist thoughts and excessive use of force against Black and Native communities,” testified another.
While most speakers followed that same line of thinking when it came to hiring and retaining officers, there was some support for the proposals from Councilmember Alex Pedersen that would have invested between $1 million and $3 million in hiring and retaining officers.
There was some variety in the comments as well, including a Green Lake woman concerned about what is happening on her streets.
“This place is lawless. We have an open drug market, people getting shot very close to an elementary school during the day. We have people running right through the freeway on Aurora, causing great hazards to drivers,” she exclaimed.
There is also more support for ensuring there are enough officers and actions to improve the public safety situation with ever-growing 911 response times. For some priority two calls, those response times are now longer than 60 minutes. Among that support, there’s a new group that sent a letter last week to both City of Seattle and King County leaders stressing the need for a clear public safety plan.
The Seattle Safety Alliance describes itself as a coalition that reflects “a growing cross-section of businesses, associations, chambers of commerce, and other groups who share a collective concern for the safety of their employees and customers.”
In a letter to the Mayor, County Executive, Sheriff, County Prosecutor, City Attorney, Police Chief, and others, the group states: “The City of Seattle’s policy decisions have eroded public safety and we are all feeling the impact of it. The Seattle Police Department is understaffed, and alternative policing methods have not yet been fully implemented. As a result, crimes like theft, assault and vandalism are often going unchecked.”
Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan echoed that sentiment in her own statement Monday, expressing strong support for Councilmember Pedersen’s proposed amendments to focus on hiring and retention.
“We don’t need to rehash the budget debates of last year on defunding, cuts, and out of order layoffs, but as a City, we need to address the real hiring and retention challenges at the Seattle Police Department,” Durkan said. “It’s a false choice to invest in alternatives or hire and retain officers to meet our current 911 response – we have shown we can invest tens of millions in new alternatives like HealthOne, civilian Community Service Officers, and prevention programs.”
“I urge Council to approve a plan to address our staffing crisis and give the Seattle Police Department the critical resources it needs to hire and retain officers committed to community policing and public service,” she said, referring to Pedersen’s proposals ahead of the vote.
Councilmember Pedersen described his proposals as necessary.
“This budget amendment would allocate funds that were already in SPD’s adopted 2021 budget to help recruit and retain SPD personnel,” Pedersen explained.
“There are two options for the amendment,” he continued. “Option A would keep $3 million within SPD’s budget for recruitment and retention, whereas option B would take an allocated $1.1 million and dedicate it for recruitment and retention.”
“I believe this motion should be viewed in the bigger picture of the substantial investments and actions that we have taken and will continue to take to boost human services programs and to reimagine public safety.” Pedersen added. “As we await various alternatives to be put in place, we must also recognize the tidal wave of attrition, the spike in 911 response times for priority one and priority two calls, the benefits of having community policing officers and detectives, and — as noted by the monitor of the federal consent decree — the need to have sufficient staffing to advance and sustain reforms for the department that we still have.”
Most of the Seattle City Council, however, could not support the plan, including Councilmember Andrew Lewis. He did agree there is an SPD staffing crisis that needs to be addressed, but he had other issues.
“What I disagree with is the reprioritization of the money component of this amendment, money earmarked for critical crime prevention programs in the Human Services Department,” Lewis explained.
Lewis split his vote on Pedersen’s plan, voting for one and against another, while acknowledging the very real issue of the need for an acceptable number of police on the force to provide public safety until the various new community safety alternatives are up and running.
“Because the only way we’re going to realize the future vision that all of us on the council share is going to be continuing to make steady and consistent investments in the Human Services Department to develop and create — and in other departments — to develop and create these response services and have those programs continue to be evaluated and scaled to take on new and bigger duties. But until that time, we need a viable police department capable of responding to exigent calls for service,” Lewis explained before his yes vote on the second Pedersen amendment that would have invested $1.1 million in hiring and retention.
But that effort also fell short on a 5-4 vote, compared to a 7-2 loss on the first option, with Councilmember Debra Juarez as the only councilmember to fully support the plan.
In the end, the $15 million in savings the SPD has due to attrition will be split in what Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda called a hybrid, with roughly $10 million staying in SPD for technology and other projects, while the other $5 million will go to other priorities, such as community based programs.
However, don’t write the idea of hiring and retention bonuses off just yet.
“This topic merits additional attention,” said Councilmember Lisa Herbold, who chairs the Public Safety Committee, indicating that the better option for the discussion would be the 2022 budget negotiations.
Those negotiations get underway in a couple of weeks.