Seattle’s police force is gutted and demoralized – here’s how to restore it
August 10, 2022
Last week we announced a multi-series investigation into the King County criminal justice system. To kick it off, we’re looking at one of the cornerstones of public safety: a competent, adequately-staffed police force with high morale and a good relationship with the community it’s expected to protect.
Currently, the Seattle Police Department is severely lacking on all fronts due to a combination of destructive City Hall policies and toxic rhetoric that has caused to the department to leak officers like a sieve, and will require proactive efforts to compete with other parts of the state and even the country for good candidates to replace them.
In short, there’s a lot more to be done than trying to hire more officers – although it’s a good start.
To be fully staffed, the SPD will need roughly 1,400 officers for a city of 741,000. Instead, it has less than 900 officers – the fewest officers the department has had in 30 years. To compare, Boston has almost 2,200 officers for a city of 655,258 residents, while Washington D.C. has 3,841 officers for a population of 702,455.
How did we get to this point?
The reality is that the SPD has been chronically understaffed for years. Yet, city spending on public safety remained high due to the amount of overtime pay incurred by officers working well beyond their regular hours in order to maintain minimal services.
Things came to a head during the 2020 riots when City Hall failed to back the police force. Instead, it ordered the SPD to stand down and abandon its East Precinct, where rioters took over a section of Capitol Hill named CHAZ or CHOP. For days, the area remained lawless that was only retaken by officers after several inevitable shootings.
Rather than express remorse or shame at their disgraceful inaction and handicapping of the SPD, the City Council proposed defunding the police. Although the initial proposal was reduced before its passage later that year, the message sent was clear: anyone working as a police officer in Seattle is a prospective criminal and should be treated with hostility.
Officers clearly got the message, with hundreds of officers leaving in 2020 alone. More than 100 officers have left this year.
Meanwhile, the city did nothing to stop the bleeding of staff or entice candidates into applying.
Ironically, the defund the police movement will ultimately require the city spend even more money on policing than before in order to cover the costs of overtime for the skeleton staff remaining and to hire, train, and retain new officers. Rather than reduce police spending, taxpayers are paying a premium price, only to receive substandard service.
The effects on public safety have been an unmitigated disaster. If you call 9-11 and your emergency is not considered “immediate,” don’t expect for help to arrive for 90 minutes – if any help arrives at all. SPD’s investigative unit used to have 230 detectives; it now has fewer than 140. This means response times are longer, if they occur, and investigations will take longer and are less likely to result in an arrest and conviction.
So, what do we do about it?
The simplest answer of course is to restaff the SPD to adequate levels. Mayor Bruce Harrell recently unveiled a $2 million plan to bring 500 new officers on board and keep them.
Make Your Voice Heard!
You should reach out to City Council and tell them to support the Mayor’s plan, and tell Mayor Harrell and tell him you support his plan to restaff the police department.
Mayor Bruce Harrell
Tammy J. Morales
Andrew J. Lewis
But…make it adamantly clear that this is not enough.
Harrell’s plan includes hiring bonuses for transfers or new recruits. The Public Safety & Human Services Committee voted 4-1 this week to in favor of the measure.
However, money alone will not attract and keep officers. After everything that has happened since 2020, and even before that, they need to know they have not only the mayor’s support but that of the City Council.
If there is an incident between a resident and an officer promoting an investigation, the process needs to be allowed to proceed without inflammatory remarks from fringe city councilmembers stoking animosity against the department, and the mayor needs to make it clear that he will publicly rebuke anyone in City Hall who does so. The assumed guilty prejudice to convicting officers before an investigation is concluded needs to be abolished permanently.
In short, Mayor Harrell’s hiring plan must include a resolution approved by the City Council that addresses the perfectly legitimate concerns potential candidates will all but likely have about working in Seattle.
That resolution should include commitment to:
- Recognizing the department’s role in providing public safety
- Ensuring the police department is adequately staffed
- Refraining from commenting about ongoing investigations into potential police misconduct
- Allowing the department to protect and defend private property during demonstrations, individual acts of violence and riots
Doing this would send a powerful message to candidates that the city has acknowledged past mistakes and is actively working to undo the harm that has been done. The resolution would constitute a public commitment toward the department and boost morale not only among the officers still there but for those who join under Harrell’s plan.
Contact the entire City Council and tell them to sponsor a resolution that makes it clear City Hall supports the police department moving forward.
Up next: We look at the problems in the King County Prosecutor’s Office…and what you can do about it.