Mayor Bruce Harrell says he will announce a comprehensive police recruitment strategy “before summer.” So the city waits — now more than 140 days into his term.
Police-hiring incentives should be part of the package. No question. The blue drain of departing Seattle Police Department officers continues faster than expected. The situation is urgent.
In the first quarter of this year, the department had hoped to hire 40 new officers. Instead, it brought on only 13. At the same time, while SPD expected 24 officers to leave, 43 tendered their resignations.
To cope with 322 fewer in-service officers since January 2020, SPD must add overtime-funded officers 90% of the time to meet its established minimum staffing standards.
Another result: The department’s median response time for Priority 1 calls such as robberies or gun shots has increased from 6.48 minutes in 2020 to 7.5 minutes today. SPD no longer responds to Priority 3 and Priority 4 calls for nuisances and minor incidents.
In an assessment filed in federal court last week, Antonio Oftelie, the court-appointed monitor overseeing mandated reforms to SPD, noted that current staffing levels are leading to strained 911 responses, limited crime solving and shelved community policing plans. All this puts in jeopardy police reform and erodes community trust.
Unfortunately, the concept of financially incentivizing new recruits and those transferring from other departments has become deeply politicized. It shouldn’t be.
On May 10, the Seattle City Council’s Public Safety and Human Services Committee reached a compromise between council members Sara Nelson and Lisa Herbold that included an offer to pay new officers’ moving expenses, add a police recruiter, promote a national marketing campaign for new officers and fund a national search for a new chief of police.
Nelson advocates using SPD salary savings to pay for financial incentives. Herbold seems OK with funding programs to help with recruitment while not joining many other departments by actually dedicating dollars to implement hiring bonuses for new cops.
On the other end of the spectrum, Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda sees any funding addressing the SPD hiring crisis as money potentially taken away from other city programs. Both Mosqueda and Herbold supported defunding Seattle police by 50% two years ago.
How the mayor comes down on the incentives debate may depend on which city study he cites when he finally unveils his long-awaited response.
Harrell should skip over a half-baked report that examined a brief period last year when incentives came into play during a spat between the council and then-Mayor Jenny Durkan.
The March 25 report noted that SPD hiring did not increase between October and January, but the situation was confusing because benefits were implemented and then removed. What’s more, media reported at the time that the council had cut Durkan’s incentives in its final budget. It’s no wonder there wasn’t a flood of interest.
Instead, Harrell should turn to a more extensive analysis that reveals a different picture.
In 2019, the council approved an SPD incentive package that lasted about a year. A preliminary analysis determined that results were positive.
According to the city, “Approximately 18% of SPD applicants (20% among applicants of color and 19% among female-identifying applicants) cited the incentive as an ‘important factor’ in their decision to apply with those who more recently started exploring a career in policing showing a more pronounced effect.”
Hard numbers on law enforcement hiring incentives are hard to come by. Two national groups, the Police Executive Research Foundation and the International Association of Police Chiefs, confirmed many agencies offer cash incentives, but there is no data on their impact.
For Sue Rahr, who retired last year as executive director of the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission, incentives are needed for Seattle to successfully compete with other departments across the region. And a robust hiring package would send a signal that Seattle’s elected leaders support law enforcement.
“People are bailing out of Seattle because they feel like they’re just not supported,” said Rahr. “The country is critical of police, but many members of the Seattle City Council have been particularly vicious. Seattle Police is at a real disadvantage when it comes to recruiting because of that.”
It is not known whether Harrell will release his police hiring plan before June 21, or if he has a looser definition of summer.
Whenever it arrives, the strategy should include financial bonuses along with other incentives. It is past time to make clear that Seattle wants a department that is staffed to do the job compassionately, effectively and safely.