For almost a year, the Seattle Mayor’s Office and Seattle City Council have sparred about whether and how to hire more cops. As this impasse continues, the department shrinks as more officers leave, more people become victims of violent crime and police take longer to respond to even the most serious 911 calls.
Mayor Bruce Harrell revealed his long-awaited police recruitment and retention plan on July 13. He hopes for speedy legislative action and the resources to rebuild the department.
This should be an easy lift for the Seattle City Council. Given the history here, however, it likely won’t be.
Harrell will have to use some of the political capital he earned with his election of 58% of the vote last November. In an interview with the editorial board, Harrell said he was willing to go out to the neighborhoods and advocate for his plan. He will need council members to hear the voices of average Seattleites instead of the advocates on Twitter.
“I’m prepared to go anywhere to support and advocate for a plan that I believe in,” said Harrell.
Violent crime — homicide, rape, robbery and assault — increased 20% to 2,303 incidents in the first five months of 2022 compared to the same period last year. The number of Seattle police officers available for deployment was 954 at the end of May 2022, the lowest number since at least 1991, when such statistics were counted. So far this year, the department lost 109 officers, and will hire 35 by the end of July.
As a result, response times for the most urgent 911 calls — those for life-threatening emergencies and serious crimes in progress — averaged more than 10 minutes, much higher than the goal of seven minutes.
To rebuild the department, Harrell’s plan includes one-time hiring bonuses of $30,000 for an experienced police officer from another department and $7,500 for a new recruit, among other provisions.
This is not a new concept for Seattle. In 2019, the council approved an SPD hiring-incentive package that lasted about a year. Preliminary analysis determined that results were positive.
After the 2020 murder of George Floyd, however, a council majority quickly went beyond calls for greater accountability and training for cops. Seven of nine council members signed on to demands to defund Seattle police by 50%: Teresa Mosqueda, Lisa Herbold, Dan Strauss, Andrew Lewis, Tammy Morales, Kshama Sawant and M. Lorena González, who left office after unsuccessfully running for mayor last year.
The council killed an executive order by then-Mayor Jenny Durkan to implement police-hiring incentives at the end of 2021. In May, the council rebuffed an effort by Councilmember Sara Nelson to support police bonuses, instead voting to offer new cops moving expenses and fund a national marketing campaign to encourage more applications.
It remains to be seen whether council members will balk at Harrell’s plan because they want a new civilian-led emergency response department, or other city employees also deserve hiring bonuses, or SPD doesn’t do a good job of assigning the officers they have, or any of the other reasons they proffered to reject incentives in the past.
Harrell contends that now would be a good time for a new storyline. He hopes his hiring package will pass before the end of August.
“It is popular to say, ‘Let’s defund, let’s abolish the police department,’ or ‘A higher number of officers is not the right way to go,’ ” said Harrell. “What we’ve consciously tried to do is change the narrative in this city. (I talk to council members) and help them understand. It’s OK to say we’re funding the police. This is what the people want. This is why I was elected.”
Harrell is correct. That is why he was elected last year, along with Nelson and Seattle City Attorney Ann Davison. If council members don’t take Harrell up on his offer to reset the discussion and do everything possible to reconstitute the police department, voters should remember: Seven of nine council seats are up for grabs next year.