In an attempt to hire 500 new police officers in the next five years, Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell wants to spend $2 million on recruitment to alleviate what he described as a “crisis level” police staffing shortage.
Harrell’s plan would offer up to $30,000 in hiring incentives for lateral transfers and $7,500 for new recruits, to make the department more competitive with other jurisdictions and bring the sworn staffing to 1,450 from its current 954.
“We’re going to get a little more sophisticated in our approach, because, as you well know, in the private sector, companies spend a lot of money in advertising and recruiting,” Harrell said at a news conference alongside interim police Chief Adrian Diaz, who endorsed the plan.
Over the last decade, the number of sworn officers at SPD has dropped from around 1,300 from 2013-19 to under 1,000 in 2022, with more than 400 resignations and retirements in since 2020. While SPD staffing has been fully funded in that time, the department has struggled to recruit quickly enough to keep up with attrition.
Many police departments nationwide, particularly in larger cities, have faced staffing shortages amid the strain of the COVID-19 pandemic and against the backdrop of 2020’s racial justice protests and debate over the role of law enforcement. With less staff, SPD says they have been unable to perform some functions of their job, and have quit investigating some major crimes such as adult sexual assault cases.
This summer, council members and the mayor have considered using some of the roughly $4.5 million in unspent salary savings budgeted for positions that the department cannot fill to fund incentives for new and existing officers.
City Council members began dialing up recruitment budgeting in May, allowing the department to spend over $1 million in salary savings — which were previously restricted under a 2022 budget proviso — for police hiring and retention efforts. Now, the mayor wants to roughly double that effort.
A new ordinance submitted to the council by the mayor’s office on Wednesday would free up an additional $1 million in SPD salary savings for “costs related to recruitment and retention of officers in SPD.” The funding would include salary and benefits for four new human resources employees, plus up to $650,000 for the hiring incentives and $150,000 for the ongoing search for a permanent police chief.
The salary range for most SPD officers is between about $83,000 and $109,000, before overtime, bonuses or other additional pay.
For existing officers, Harrell’s plan also commits to providing education funding and retention incentives, though the specifics haven’t been determined due to ongoing police union negotiations.
“There is a comprehensive economic package [for retention], but some of that is in negotiation, so I can’t highlight a dollar amount for that very specific piece of it,” Diaz said.
Harrell said it’s unlikely the negotiations will be completed before the passage of the city’s 2023 budget in November.
Lisa Herbold, chair of the council’s Public Safety and Human Services Committee, thanked Harrell and Diaz for the proposal in a statement Wednesday, noting she supports hiring more police but also wants to see investments into alternative responses that do not require police presence.
Last year, an analysis determined that 12% of emergency calls — such as calls about a “person down” and some low-priority welfare checks — should be looked at as a good starting point for a program that uses unarmed community responders, rather than police. The analysis prompted then-Mayor Jenny Durkan and other city officials to announce plans last summer for a special response team that would focus on calls that are neither criminal nor medical emergencies, though that team has not yet launched.
Citing the study, commissioned by the council on the heels of the 2020 racial justice protests, Herbold said Wednesday the city has to focus on bolstering alternative response, which will in turn benefit overworked officers.
“A critical part of the long-term solution is to lessen the load on officers and create new, more effective ways of responding to calls that do not require an armed police response,” Herbold said. “We can’t keep asking police officers to direct traffic and help people in mental health crises when we don’t have enough officers to investigate sexual assaults or respond to 911 calls.”
But Herbold says the mayor’s office is not moving fast enough on these alternative programs.
“Seattle is falling behind on its commitments to create policing alternatives, and those impacts are being felt by community members who are not getting the service they deserve and by police officers who are stretched too thin,” she said.
A spokesperson for Harrell said the mayor is “fully committed” to improving alternative responses but that those improvements can’t be done “overnight.”
“This is not an either/or — ensuring effective public safety requires innovative alternate responses and a fully staffed police department,” Communications Director Jamie Housen said in response to Herbold. “Today, SPD is in a staffing crisis that demands urgent action. Response times to Priority 1 and 2 calls — where lives are on the line — continue to deteriorate because we do not have enough officers.”
Harrell said Wednesday that he was optimistic the recruitment plan would be adopted by the council. He said he sought council approval, rather than establishing police pay incentives in an executive order like his predecessor, in the interest of being collaborative. Durkan’s October emergency order authorized bonuses of up to $10,000 for new recruits and up to $25,000 for transfers from other jurisdictions.
The Downtown Seattle Association, a nonprofit group that represents downtown business interests and has been calling for crime reduction, commended Harrell’s plan.
“This plan is a thoughtful approach aimed at ensuring Seattle has the right officers, and not just a deeper roster,” the group said in a statement Wednesday.