By Erica C. Barnett
Mayor Bruce Harrell and Interim Police Chief Adrian Diaz announced a $2 million “recruitment and retention plan” for Seattle police officers that would provide bonuses of up to $30,000 to trained officers from elsewhere who join the department and up to $7,500 to new recruits, putting Seattle’s hiring incentives roughly in line with those in other nearby cities. The city has lost 109 officers this year, according to Diaz, about two-thirds of them to retirement.
To make up for those losses, Harrell wants to hire about 500 new officers over the next five years, increasing the number of officers from less than 1,000 to at least 1,400—the same number SPD has been saying it needs since at least 2020, when attrition first hit record-breaking highs. The $2 million investment would include about $1 million the city council released for recruitment incentives earlier this year, plus an additional $1 million that would require council approval.
Entry-level police officers start out making around $84,000 a year. That figure doesn’t not counting overtime and off-duty work, like directing traffic at parking garages and construction sites, which can bump officers’ take-home pay well into the six figures.
Despite the fact that experienced officers are still leaving the department in large numbers, Harrell’s proposal does not include retention bonuses for people already working in the department—a seeming oversight that Diaz said would be rectified during negotiations with the Seattle Police Officers Guild, which are ongoing.
“It’s been nearly two years since the Council requested an analysis of what types of 911 calls could be responded to without police involvement. … Despite consistent requests from myself and other Councilmembers to act with urgency, we have not received a favorable response from the executive.”—Seattle City Councilmember Lisa Herbold
“Mayor Harrell’s proposal includes a competitive economic package to focus on retention,” Diaz said, but “we can’t highlight a dollar amount.” In addition to more money for officers, Diaz said, “We’re hoping to get a little bit more time off for officers, because, you know, in this line of work, there’s a lot of stress” from responding to calls and dealing with traumatic situations. The retention proposal also includes incentives for higher education, more predictable shifts, and “a comprehensive wellness program.”
None of the proposals Harrell rolled out this week are particularly unique, and some are already in the works, such as the potential transition to four-day work weeks with ten-hour shifts. Nor have hiring incentives been particularly effective at recruiting qualified officers, particularly experienced “lateral” hires from other police departments, in the past.
A Seattle Department of Human Resources review of two different hiring bonus programs from 2019 and 2021 found that hiring bonuses had little or no effect on actual hires, although 18 percent of people who applied for SPD jobs in 2019 said the bonus was one reason they put in an application. Cities across the country are struggling to recruit and retain police officers, and Diaz has noted that officers who leave the department often cite working conditions and morale as reasons for quitting.
When existing employees see new hires walking through the door with tens of thousands of dollars in their pockets, that can create its own strain on morale. Meanwhile, many other departments are facing similar recruitment and retention issues, but have not inspired a similar level of attention and investment from the city—something council public safety committee chair Lisa Herbold has pointed out on many occasions.
In a statement, Herbold said she agrees with Harrell that “hiring police officers is important,” but added that the city has taken few tangible steps toward setting up an alternative response system for situations that don’t require an armed response.
“We can’t keep asking police officers to direct traffic and help people in mental health crises when we don’t have enough officers to investigate sexual assaults or respond to 911 calls,” Herbold said. “It’s been nearly two years since the Council requested an analysis of what types of 911 calls could be responded to without police involvement. … Despite consistent requests from myself and other Councilmembers to act with urgency, we have not received a favorable response from the executive.”