Little Appetite on Council for Fighting Durkan’s Police Hiring Bonus

"Lateral hire" sign for Spokane Sheriff's Office in Times Square
Photo via @SpokaneSheriffOffice on Twitter.

By Paul Kiefer

Last Friday, outgoing Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan signed an executive order offering hefty hiring bonuses as recruitment tools for the Seattle Police Department and the city’s 911 call center.

The order was a blunt tool for accomplishing a policy goal the mayor has pursued for months. In July, the city council declined to consider a bill drafted by her office that would have restored a hiring incentive program for SPD halted by the COVID-19 pandemic, and in early September, the council narrowly voted against a pair of proposals—introduced by Councilmember Alex Pedersen, with Durkan’s support—to offer hiring and retention bonuses for police officers.

The mayor’s order will allow SPD to pay officers who transfer from other departments up to $25,000, and new recruits up to $10,000, for the rest of 2021. The CSCC will be able to offer the same bonuses. Those figures are substantially higher than the hiring incentives offered to new police officers in 2019, when lateral transfers received $15,000 and new recruits received $7,500.

For the members of the city council who resisted the mayor’s previous attempts to reestablish the hiring incentive program, Durkan’s executive order appeared reckless. “It’s not clear whether the funding in this year’s budget is sufficient to allow this program to begin operating as envisioned,” said council public safety chair Lisa Herbold during the council’s briefing on Monday.

According to Durkan spokesman Anthony Derrick, the city will fund this year’s hiring incentives using $1.1 million in unspent police salaries that SPD hasn’t yet diverted to cover other expenses—a sum that would allow SPD and the 911 call center to hire around 44 experienced staff, 110 new recruits, or some combination of the two. As of late September, SPD had hired 57 officers in 2021, with plans to hire an additional 28 by the end of the year. The 911 call center, now housed in the city’s new Community Safety and Communications Center, hopes to fill 30 vacancies as quickly as possible, including 10 that opened after the city’s vaccine mandate took effect in October.

From the council’s perspective, the decision to spend the leftover $1.1 million could have budgetary repercussions even if SPD and the 911 call center don’t spend the full amount on hiring incentives. When the council discussed how to redistribute SPD’s unspent salaries earlier this year, it resolved to leave the $1.1 million as a reserve to cover unexpected costs, a decision informed by Durkan’s last-minute request in December 2020 to add more money to SPD’s budget after the department spent more on overtime than the council had approved.

For now, SPD hasn’t signaled that it will ask for a year-end addition to its budget like it did last year. But for a council worn down by months of debate about how to discourage the department from spending beyond its means, the prospect of losing the only contingency fund because of the mayor’s executive order is concerning. The launch of Seattle’s newest sports franchise, the Kraken hockey team, could accelerate SPD’s overtime spending over the next two months, adding to the risk that the council could face a repeat of 2020’s last-minute police budget crisis. In her comments on Monday, Herbold mentioned that the council may have “learned its lesson” about leaving dollars unassigned in the SPD budget.

Hiring incentives for police officers have become commonplace in Western Washington. Officers who transfer to Bellevue’s police department receive a $16,000 bonus; in Renton and Lynnwood, the bonus for lateral hires is $20,000. Combined with the starting salary for new, fully trained officers at SPD—a base of more than $83,000, compared to between $68,000 and $78,000 at other nearby agencies—the hiring incentives mean that Seattle police officers will remain the best-paid in the region, with brand-new officers making close to six figures. In 2019, hiring incentives seemed to help SPD boost its recruitment figures after a dip the previous year, rising from 68 new hires in 2018 to 108 in 2019.

Mike Solan, the president of the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild (SPOG)—the union representing most sworn officers in SPD—is skeptical that the incentives will work this year. “Dangling money to recruit new or lateral hires won’t get the job done,” he wrote in a letter to Durkan on Saturday. “Seattle cannot simply hire enough people to balance the loss of so many officers as other agencies across the country are competing for those same jobs.”

Despite objections from the city council’s labor relations policy committee, which establishes the city’s bargaining position during union contract negotiations, Durkan also offered to pay SPOG members to get the COVID-19 vaccine. Negotiations between the union and the city about the impacts of the vaccine mandate are still ongoing.

The council is still considering whether to approve more than $1 million in the city’s 2022 budget to continue the hiring incentive program. In the meantime, few council members seem eager to enter a political battle with Durkan over her executive order.

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