By Paul Kiefer
The Seattle Police Department is still struggling to replace departing officers after two years of record-high attrition, according to a presentation to the city council’s public safety committee by Interim SPD Chief Adrian Diaz on Tuesday morning.
Since January, SPD has only been able to hire seven officers to replace the 34 who left during the same period. Part of the problem, Diaz said, is that SPD is struggling to compete with other agencies along the I-5 corridor who offer similar salaries and benefits without the additional stresses created by his department’s staffing shortage. “We’re working people an extra two or three shifts a week,” he said, adding that perceived public hostility has also lowered officers’ morale.
SPD’s greatest challenge has been recruiting officers from other law enforcement agencies. SPD seeks out so-called “lateral” officers because they require less training and bring specialized skills to SPD.
Diaz told the council that his department has specifically sought to recruit officers from departments in the South and Midwest who might be drawn to Seattle by the promise of a higher salary. He also noted that few lateral applicants make it through the hiring process, in part because of SPD’s background check process. “We want to make sure we don’t hire another department’s problem,” he said. Ultimately, SPD only hired one officer with prior law enforcement experience—a recruit from Mobile, Alabama.
Although the council voted to stop offering hiring incentives to new officers last fall, public safety committee chair Lisa Herbold expressed interest on Tuesday in “rethinking” SPD’s incentive program to focus on retaining experienced officers and attracting lateral transfers from other departments.
One obstacle to recruiting officers from elsewhere, she said, is the cost of moving to Seattle; a new incentive program could cover moving expenses. SPD is also testing a new schedule that will place officers on 10-hour shifts for four days each week—another part of SPD’s efforts to retain officers, Diaz said. The department is currently negotiating with the Seattle Police Officers’ Guild to adopt the new shift schedule department-wide.
Herbold also pointed out that the state legislature voted earlier this month to increase pension payments for police officers who retire after 15 or more years on the force, which she said “might have the consequence of encouraging officers to retire early.” A wave of retirements could be especially challenging for SPD’s detective units—already a fraction of their pre-pandemic size—which rely on more experienced detectives to investigate crime. Given SPD’s ongoing staffing shortage, Diaz has moved many detectives into patrol units over the past year-and-a-half, leaving the remaining detectives with larger caseloads.
Meanwhile, Diaz said, SPD is also seeing fewer applications for its Community Service Officer (CSO) program, which the council voted to expand during last year’s budget cycle. SPD is currently using some CSOs to supplement its presence at the intersection of 12th Ave. S. and S. Jackson St. in the Little Saigon neighborhood, and Diaz expressed interest in using the civilian unit to handle calls that sworn officers can’t currently respond to.
Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda urged SPD to search for more opportunities to shift responsibilities from officers to civilians. “Officers aren’t equipped to be social workers or housing navigators,” she said, “and having them focus on what they can do will help our retention strategy.”