by Paul Faruq Kiefer
(This article originally appeared on PubliCola and has been reprinted under an agreement.)
The Seattle Police Department’s (SPD) staffing goals for 2022 are extremely ambitious and could leave the department with millions in unspent salaries, according to a staff presentation to the City Council’s Budget Committee on Friday, Oct. 15.
More than 300 sworn officers have left the department since January 2020. In 2022, SPD hopes to begin replenishing its ranks, starting with the restoration of 31 paid positions that the council eliminated last year. That proposal would leave SPD with a total of 1,357 funded officer positions, but the department can’t realistically fill all of those positions in a year; instead, SPD estimates that it would end 2022 with 134 vacancies.
Even that goal is ambitious. The department anticipates that roughly 94 officers will leave the department this year, so to reach its goals — a net add of 35 officers — SPD will need to hire a record 125 new officers. To hit that mark, the department would have to surpass the past decade’s average annual hires by more than 25% .
SPD argues that it can accelerate hiring by making the application process more efficient. The department moved hiring exams online in a bid to improve accessibility for applicants, and instead of conducting time-consuming background checks in-house, SPD is now relying on an outside contractor to speed up the process.
Other variables are outside the department’s control. Washington’s Basic Law Enforcement Academy (BLEA), which provides a mandatory five-month training to new recruits, can’t increase class sizes without approval from the State Legislature. Currently, new recruits have to wait an average of four months after SPD begins the hiring process to start basic training at the academy.
During Friday’s presentation, Budget Committee Chair Teresa Mosqueda reminded her colleagues that the council has previously asked SPD to scale back its hiring goals. During last year’s budget deliberations, for example, the council deemed SPD’s plan to hire 114 new officers in 2021 “not achievable.” As of the end of September, SPD had hired only 57 new officers, though the department estimates it will reach 85 hires by the end of the year.
If SPD can reach its hiring goal next year, the department estimates it will still have an extra $19 million from unspent salaries by the end of 2022. SPD plans to use its salary savings to pay for a slew of technology updates, contracts, and operating expenses that aren’t otherwise covered in their budget. Those include familiar necessities — separation pay for officers that leave, for instance — as well as longer-term projects like the expansion of the department’s public disclosure unit. SPD also plans to spend some of its unspent salaries on projects outside the department, including $1.5 million on Seattle-area violence prevention nonprofits.
The largest portion of SPD’s salary savings — $6.4 million — would cover the department’s overtime expenses, driven largely by the return of in-person attendance at sports games, where off-duty officers provide security. While event organizers pay SPD for those costs, Council President Lorena González questioned the wisdom of using already officers to staff “for-profit special events,” commenting that the department “need[s] the time these officers have to work on patrol.” Unlike last year, SPD isn’t at risk of overspending its overtime budget: Out of a nearly $25 million budget for overtime, the department has only spent $15.5 million to date.
Other councilmembers expressed frustration with SPD’s plan to spend $1 million of its salary savings on software that is supposed to predict which officers might need mental health support by collecting their biometric data and monitoring the length, type, and outcomes of calls they respond to. “That seems like a lot of money to spend on technology that tells us that officers have high-stress jobs,” said Councilmember Tammy Morales. Instead, Morales suggested, the department should direct those dollars to mental health counseling for officers. To the council’s frustration, however, SPD has already begun signing contracts for the development of the predictive technology, with plans to pay for it using salary savings.
In all, SPD has a plan to spend all but $1.1 million of its projected salary savings in 2022. Relying on SPD’s salary savings as the funding source for dozens of other expenses and projects is a risky long-term strategy, warned City Council central staffer Greg Doss. If the department can eventually fill its vacancies, he said, the council will face a dilemma: finding millions of new dollars to add to SPD’s budget or cutting back on salaries to keep other projects alive.
Meanwhile, the Oct. 18 deadline for the City’s vaccination mandate could force SPD to rethink its hiring plan. On Friday, at least 138 SPD officers had not yet submitted proof of vaccination — a figure that does not include more than 100 officers who are currently on leave for various reasons, including military service, misconduct investigations, and medical treatment.
The City hasn’t yet reached an agreement with the Seattle Police Officers Guild (SPOG) about how the City will enforce its mandate on police union members, and Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office maintains that the City will start firing unvaccinated officers who haven’t applied for exemptions from the mandate by Tuesday, Oct. 19. And the 97 sworn officers who applied for exemptions from the vaccine mandate aren’t necessarily in the clear: If SPD decides that it can’t safely accommodate these officers, they, too, could lose their jobs. SPD’S 2022 staffing plan doesn’t account for the loss of unvaccinated officers.
Though the department acknowledges that its projections are optimistic, SPD strategic initiatives director Chris Fisher told the council in late September that he’s confident they can make the adjustments needed to push a record number of recruits through the hiring process — even if it means holding SPD-only basic training classes at the state academy. The obstacle that concerns them most, he said, is simply getting enough people to fill out an application.
Paul Faruq 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. Paul reports on police accountability for PubliCola.
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