by Paul Kiefer
(This article previously appeared on PubliCola and has been reprinted under an agreement.)
On Friday morning, Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office released a new report from the City’s Budget Office and the Seattle Police Department showing a record-breaking number of officer separations from SPD in September. In that month alone, 39 officers and officers in training left the department — double the number of officers leaving in the next-highest month on record. Without an end to the ongoing hiring freeze (a part of the City’s COVID-related austerity), SPD and the Budget Office project the department to continue hemorrhaging sworn staff well into 2021, potentially exceeding the staffing cuts proposed by the City Council during the summer.
The pending staff shortage places the department at risk of falling further out of compliance with the conditions of the Federal consent decree, increasing the likelihood that SPD will remain under the supervision of the Department of Justice for years to come. (Federal District Court Judge James Robart, responsible for overseeing Seattle’s consent decree for the Department of Justice, already ruled the City partially out of compliance in 2019).
Dr. Antonio Oftelie, the new court-appointed monitor for the consent decree, told PubliCola that the consent decree required SPD to scale up its staffing to improve specialized investigation units, departmental audits, and use of force reviews. “The specialty units that are required by the consent decree will likely be the first to feel the effects of budget cuts and the loss of offices,” he said. “SPD’s ability to audit itself, its ability to develop policy, its force investigation team and training units are also required by the consent decree and are also put at risk if the department has a massive staffing shortage.”
That will be true, he said, even if attrition does not continue to rise over the coming year. “Even the current staffing gap — without further reductions — makes it difficult to meet the requirements of the consent decree,” he said. “If you look at it in the long run, factoring budget cuts and staffing reductions, it becomes quite dire. There’s a good two-year lag between recruiting new officers and having them on patrol, so if we’re looking at 2–3 years of budget cuts, it may take a decade for Seattle to catch up to meet the demands of the consent decree.”
Former Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole, who took over the department a year after the City entered the consent decree, concurred with Oftelie, pointing out that the rising attrition could impact SPD’s ability to implement policy changes. “If everybody is going to patrol so they have enough people to answer 911 calls, all the specialized units, including training, will be decimated,” she told PubliCola. “The policies about use of force introduced by the consent decree aren’t worth the paper they’re written on if we can’t train sworn officers to follow them.”
According to data provided by the mayor’s office, the number of SPD officers leaving remained fairly unremarkable until August, when the monthly numbers began to rise relative to past years, followed by the much larger spike in September. Of the 39 staff who left the department that month, 36 were fully trained officers and three were officers in training; another 14 joined SPD’s extended leave roster, resulting in a total drop in the number of active officers from 1,247 to 1,203 over the course of the month.
Police Chief Adrian Diaz asserted at a City Council meeting two weeks ago that his department requires a minimum of 1,400 officers to fulfill their current City responsibilities. Some City Council members, including Council President Lorena Gonzalez, pushed back on that assumption, arguing that the City should be open to reducing the force further while scaling up public safety alternatives.
Six of the 110 officers leaving this year stemmed from terminations, including Officer Molly Clark, whose attempt to hit marchers with her car at a downtown intersection in July sparked an OPA investigation. Four other terminations involved recruits and student officers. The vast majority of the spike over the course of the year involved resignations by junior officers (those who had served with SPD for less than five years) and retirements by senior officers (those who had served for over 25 years). The patrol bureau — the largest in SPD — saw highest rate of attrition, losing 64 officers over the course of the year. The data provided by the mayor’s office did not provide details about the seniority of the officers who left the department in September.
If the mayor’s hiring freeze continues through the end of 2020, SPD and the Budget Office project that the department will fall short of the 1,400 officer threshold well into 2022, by between 20 and 50 officers. If the freeze is extended through the end of next year, their estimates project that the department could shrink to 1,260 sworn officers by January 2022.
No single reason exists for the rise in attrition, though some contributing factors are clear. Diaz’s decision to shift 100 officers to patrol duties in mid-September — including some senior detectives, as PubliCola reported last month — will likely prompt some older officers to consider retirement. And the increase in resignations among younger officers follows a longer trend of new hires transferring to other law enforcement agencies in Washington.
The impact of the ongoing debate about the role of policing in Seattle on these numbers is difficult to quantify, but drooping officer morale has also been a persistent problem in SPD since at least last year. When former Police Chief Carmen Best announced her retirement in August, Durkan explained that she didn’t intend to begin the search for a new permanent police chief within the coming year for many of the same reasons, commenting, “If we started a search right now, I doubt that we could attract the candidates that Seattle deserves, because they don’t know what they’re applying for.”
Mayor spokesperson Kelsey Nyland said Durkan cites rising attrition as a reason to revive the City’s process for hiring and training new officers. “We are losing an unprecedented number of officers, which makes it even more critical that we recruit and retain officers committed to reform and community policing that reflect the diversity and values of our city,” Nyland wrote, adding, “the Mayor is deeply concerned by the fact that some of our youngest officers — those who joined the department knowing it was under a federal consent decree — are leaving at an extremely high rate. These are the exact officers we want to keep as we transform the department. They’re the ones who entered the department with an emphasis on de-escalation training and community-based, constitutional policing.”
In a subsequent statement on Thursday, Nyland said the mayor believes that unlike potential Police Chiefs, SPD might still be able to attract new officers interested in joining a department undergoing serious changes. “The Mayor is hopeful that we can capitalize on the department’s past good work to recruit a young, diverse set of officers committed to community-based and constitutional policing,” Nyland wrote. She also highlighted the mayor’s fault lines with the City Council, adding, “but again, that’s only possible if Council appropriates a budget that would allow for recruits.”
These staffing losses come as the Council is considering a 2021 budget put forward by Durkan two weeks ago that included a reduction in SPD staffing of 20 officers, far short of the 100-employee reduction proposed by the Council over the summer. While the Council’s proposal assumed that some portion of the staffing cuts at SPD would come through higher-than-average attrition, the series of provisos they passed in August assumed that the City would conduct some additional layoffs.
Specifically, the Council directed Diaz to pursue out-of-order layoffs: a process that would require the Chief to argue before the Public Safety Civil Service Commission (a quasi-judicial City body) that altering the layoff order, which ordinarily begins with trainees and junior officers, would benefit departmental efficiency. Durkan has consistently asserted that out-of-order layoffs would be rendered infeasible by the protracted legal battles with the police unions that would ensue. But according to her office, the rise in SPD attrition may resolve her dispute with the Council about the layoffs. “Per the City Council’s override of the Mayor’s veto, the City is obligated to move forward with the out-of-order layoff process, which is currently underway as we seek guidance and parameters from the Labor Relations Policy Committee,” Nyland said. “[Durkan] believes that responsibly reducing the size of the sworn force through planned attrition is more likely to prove successful than attempting out-of-order layoffs … Attrition, unlike out-of-order layoffs, is not subject to bargaining or legal issues that could delay or even reverse the process. This newest round of data is proof positive that attrition will shrink the force faster than Council’s proposed layoffs. But ultimately, the decision of whether or not to continue with layoffs lies with Council.”
The City Council will finish its deliberations on the mayor’s proposed budget in late November. At time of publication, no Council members have addressed the new attrition figures.
Paul Kiefer is a journalist, historian, and born-and-bred Seattleite. He has published work with KUOW, North Carolina Public Radio, and The Progressive Magazine, and he is currently working on a podcast for KUAF in Fayetteville, Arkansas. He was recently hired on as the police accountability reporter for PubliCola.
Featured image is attributed to Adam Cohn under a Creative Commons 2.0 Non-Commercial license.