By Paul Kiefer
In his first appearance in his new role, Interim Seattle Police Chief Adrian Diaz joined Mayor Jenny Durkan Wednesday to explain why he’s transferring 100 officers to the 911 response team within the month.
Diaz first announced the move in an SPD Blotter post on Tuesday afternoon, saying his intent is to “better align department resources with our mission statement and community expectations” by emphasizing patrol roles (officers responsible for responding to 911 calls) which he called the “backbone” of the department.
Diaz said today that his goal is to move “at least half” of SPD’s officers to patrol positions, as well as half of the supervisorial staff (lieutenants and sergeants). He explained that about 40% of the 100 officers who will transfer to patrol by September 16th will leave units that currently serve patrol-like functions, including officers in the anti-crime unit, traffic enforcement ,and community policing. The rest of the new patrol officers will come from a variety of the department’s other specialty units,. Those units, Diaz said, were adopted over the past several decades “at the cost of [SPD’s] 911 response,” adding that “considering current personnel and budgets, these specialty units are a model we can no longer afford.”
The dramatic move came just a week after Durkan issued a sharp rebuke of the council’s vision for downsizing SPD by vetoing their midyear budget rebalancing package. That council package included several ordinances that would have cut 100 positions from the department—largely through attrition, but also including targeted cuts in several specialty units, including the harbor patrol, the mounted unit, and the misleadingly named homeland security unit (generally assigned to provide security at large events).
One of Durkan’s most consistent criticisms of the package was that the job cuts would lead to slow 911 response times to even the most serious crimes, including rape and home invasions. But the council responded by pointing out that 56% of all 911 calls in Seattle are for non-criminal situations; they recommended a more effective protocol for triaging SPD 911 response that would prioritize critical incidents and vulnerable populations, ensuring fast response times when they are most necessary. The council hasn’t yet voted on whether or not to override the mayor’s veto.
According to Durkan, the shift was largely spurred by demands she’s heard from “every neighborhood in the city,” both for faster 911 response times and for greater community engagement. “Officers don’t have the time they need to know the residents and businesses of the neighborhoods they serve,” Durkan said, “and many times it’s because they were responding from call to call.”
She and Diaz both said increasing the number of officers on patrol would allow officers to respond faster and respond to a wider array of calls—including “Priority 2” calls, which SPD defines as “altercations or situations which could escalate if assistance does not arrive soon.”
Diaz said it would also give officers more time to “identify the underlying issues [on their beats] and start relationships with renters, homeowners, the neighborhood watch, the business owner, and the person living outside.” And while some of the transfers would come from the community policing unit, Diaz’s indicated the new patrol officers would be expected to shoulder some responsibility for community policing themselves.
Durkan brushed off questions from the press about the contrast between the increase in patrol officers and the concerns of the Defund SPD movement about interactions between SPD and the public, arguing that she’s heard more consistent calls for efficient 911 response. “We know we still need police,” she argued. “We rely on them to provide public safety.”
Durkan and Diaz also said the shift will help cut the department’s overtime costs by scaling down the more overtime-heavy specialized units and increasing the number of patrol shifts.
Durkan pointed to this year’s spike in homicides—up 44% from last year in King County, according to the King County Prosecutor’s Office—as another justification for the reshuffling. She said the move will “help…officers arrive at scenes more quickly, give victims the help they need, help first responders and find perpetrators.” However, she acknowledged that “policing alone cannot and will not solve” the rise in gun violence. She said “upstream” investments in education and diversionary programs were a key part of the solution, as well as “trusted community partners who can deescalate situations and provide alternatives to the criminal justice system.”
For the time being, Diaz said, he intends to move at most two detectives per specialty unit, such as Domestic Violence or Sexual Assault; those detectives’ caseloads will be transferred to the staff remaining on those specialized units. He said one of his goals is to minimize the effect of these transfers on the department’s case closure rate and the speed of investigations. (Patrol officers do not conduct investigations).
In keeping with the conditions of the Seattle Police Officers Guild contract, Diaz said the first detectives to be reassigned to patrol will be those who most recently joined specialty units, and therefore those who have the most up-to-date training as patrol officers. However, Diaz added that detectives who haven’t been on patrol duty for several years will receive “updated” training during the coming two weeks to learn new patrol rules and procedures.
But Office of Police Accountability Director Andrew Myerberg doesn’t think that last-in, first-out approach to transfers will last, and in fact, could exacerbate a potential officer shortage. “The OPA expects to see SPD staffing shortages for the next year, if not longer,” he said. “And we think we might see a rise in senior officers retiring instead of going back onto patrol,” he said.
That would mean more patrol vacancies, and potentially more transfers from the specialty units to fill those vacancies, which, in turn, would leave the remaining detectives in the specialty units with much larger caseloads. He said his office will play a role in retraining officers for patrol, “understanding that there are going to be officers who come onto patrol for the first time in years.”
Despite her recent veto of the council’s proposed 2020 budget revisions, the mayor said she thinks the council will “respond very positively.”
Lisa Herbold, the chair of the council’s Public Safety Committee, told The C is for Crank that she had the chance to discuss the shifts with Diaz after his announcement. She said she supports his authority to make deployment decisions, and she “appreciate[s] that he wants to do more to improve 911 response time.”
However, she sees some bumps in the road ahead. For instance, Herbold said she supports the idea of increasing the number of shifts, but added that “it was [her] understanding that contract negotiations with SPOG will be necessary” to make those changes.
Herbold said she hopes Diaz’s yet-to-be-disclosed decisions about which specialty units will use officers align with the council’s proposals this year for downsizing some SPD units. “It would have been great to know more about whether the executive and Chief Diaz looked at the specialty units the council identified to be reduced,” she said. “And even if there’s disagreement between the Council and the Executive about whether the Navigation team should exist, I’d hope the mayor and the chief would consider moving some officers off that team.”
In the coming week, SPD is giving officers the opportunity for officers to indicate their preferred assignment before ultimately deciding which officers to reassign to 911 response.