As the Seattle City Council considers downsizing the city’s police force, one Seattle Times reader emailed me with her concerns. The reader — a resident of downtown Seattle — wonders if the Seattle Police Department (SPD) is not currently overstaffed, but understaffed.
“I have been concerned for some time about the low number of sworn police officers in Seattle,” she wrote, “especially in light of our large population growth over the past 10-15 years.”
The reader suggested that I share data with my readers on staffing levels in Seattle in comparison with other large U.S. cities.
Fortunately, the FBI collects data on police departments across the country, as well as the size of the populations they serve. That makes it easy to calculate a ratio of the number of officers per resident. The most recent FBI data is for 2019.
Comparing the officer-to-population ratio for the nation’s 50 largest police department jurisdictions, we find that Seattle is on the low side, as the reader suspected. The average ratio for the 50 largest jurisdictions is 26.9 officers for every 10,000 residents. Seattle falls well below that, at 18.5 per 10,000.
Among the 50, Seattle ranks in the bottom half, but close to the middle, at 28th. The cities with ratios closest to Seattle are Las Vegas (18.7) and Omaha, Nebraska (18.3).
Seattle had 1,419 officers in 2019, serving an estimated population of about 764,000 residents, according to the FBI.
The police department with the highest officer-to-population ratio in 2019 was Washington, D.C., which is often considered one of Seattle’s “peer” cities. But in terms of police staffing, the two cities are in different leagues.
There are 54 cops for every 10,000 D.C. residents, nearly three times higher than Seattle. The department there had 3,809 officers in 2019, serving an estimated population of 705,000.
The other cities with highest police-to-population ratios, with the exception of Chicago, are also in the Northeast/Mid-Atlantic region: New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore.
The jurisdictions at the other end of the spectrum are predominantly on the West Coast. San Jose, California, had the lowest police-to-population ratio last year, at 11.1 police officers per 10,000 people — that’s just 1,150 officers for a city of more than 1 million. Raleigh, North Carolina, is the one Eastern city in the bottom five. The others are San Diego and Sacramento in California, and Portland.
The data reveals a remarkable degree of variance in police staffing from highest to lowest among these large cities. I asked Jacqueline Helfgott, director of the Crime & Justice Research Center at Seattle University, if she could explain.
“There are so many different factors,” she said. “but you could probably put them into three categories.
“One would be crime, such as crime rates and crime trends, calls for service and 911 calls. The second would be the nature of the organization — how officers spend their time and the number of specialized units versus officers on patrol, and performance objectives” she said. “The third would be the community … what are the conditions, the geography, and what are the crime perceptions and expectations of the community.”
Helfgott describes the current level of staffing at SPD as “already low,” and it’s projected to decline further with the current hiring freeze and high rate of attrition in the department. Helfgott says if the freeze continues next year, it would move staffing levels to below the “best practices” minimum for police department staffing requirements.
The push to reduce the number of officers stems from this summer’s Black Lives Matter protests over the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis, and other acts of police violence against Black people. The protesters have demanded cutting SPD’s budget by 50%.
Helfgott says that if budget cuts cause staffing to drop so much that there aren’t enough officers to respond to calls for service, it would require additional police overtime — which is expensive, and basically defeats the purpose of cutting the budget.
She also worries that defunding could undermine advancements made since the 2012 consent decree with the federal government, which required the SPD to enact significant reforms.
“My concern is that this whole notion of defunding SPD … will have a backfire effect,” she said.
Even so, she supports many of the other reforms that protesters are calling for, such as restorative justice, alternatives to incarceration and the felony diversion program.
“I’m not opposed to much of what defunding proponents are calling for,” Helfgott said, although she concedes that she doesn’t know where the money would come from for many of these reforms if we don’t also defund the police.
She also says she understands that it’s important for police departments to address issues of racism and other abuses that led to the protests.
“But I think the approach should be to take a step back and consider the police to be one agency among many in the community, and that all have to work together,” she said. “To focus on one agency — the police — and defund that agency without anything in its place … that’s my concern.”