Durkan proposes $15,000 bonuses for SPD officers hired from other police departments

Yesterday Mayor Jenny Durkan announced that her office has transmitted to the City Council a proposed ordinance authorizing hiring bonuses of up to $15,000 for “lateral” hires into the Seattle Police Department — that is, police officers from other jurisdictions who move to SPD.

There are a couple of reasons for this. First, it’s a competitive issue: other law enforcement agencies have recently been using hiring bonuses to lure away officers, including SPD’s. Second, it’s for speed: officers who have already been trained elsewhere are required to go through far less training here than fresh recruits, and according to the city on average they deploy up to five months faster.

SPD recently has had issues with high attrition, which it attributes to the lack of a signed contract between the city and SPOG, the police officers’ union. Now that a new contract is in place, the department is moving quickly to shore up its ranks.

However, anyone who has worked in a corporate HR team can tell you that signing bonuses are trickier than they seem. If not done properly, an officer can game the system by jumping back and forth between to neighboring departments (for example, Bellevue and Seattle), collecting signing bonuses. To work properly, a signing bonus needs to have a retention requirement: the employee must stay employed there to fully earn the bonus. There are multiple approaches to implementing this:

  • the employee receives the bonus at the end of the required retention period, not at the start of employment;
  • the employee receives the bonus when hired, but the employer can “claw it back” if the employee leaves before the end of the retention period;
  • the employee receives the hiring bonus in installments over the course of the retention period.

The draft legislation the Mayor sent to the City Council provides no details on how they would operationalize a hiring bonus; it simply approves hiring bonuses up to $15,000. I asked the Mayor’s Office what their plan was for this. A spokesperson for the Mayor replied: “We are still working on operationalizing some specifics, including when/if an incentive would have to be paid back.”  We shall see whether the City Council decides to add some specifics, or leave it up to SPD. Since it’s a compensation-related topic, it is likely subject to collective bargaining with the police officers’ union, so the Council may decide to steer clear.

The department may also discover that it also needs to offer retention bonuses, to hold onto officers who may be tempted away by a signing bonus from another department. But that’s a debate for another day.