Mayor’s Office rolls out initiative to address SPD hiring and retention in 2020

This afternoon, Mayor Durkan unveiled the first in a series of initiatives in her 2020 budget: a $1.7 million, twelve-point plan to address the Seattle Police Department’s issues with hiring and retention.

Earlier this year, Durkan tasked her office’s “innovation and performance” team to work with SPD to better understand the root causes of the issues that emerged last year — the first time in several years that the departments total count of sworn officers declined.

That team created an inter-departmental workgroup to analyze why both new hires and overall officer counts had declined, and to identify short and long term strategies to improve recruiting and retention for SPD. They arrived at twelve recommendations, in three buckets: recruitment, hiring, and retention. Mayor Durkan proposes to address all twelve, for a total budget investment of $1.73 million. However, since SPD is once again under-shooting its recruiting and retention goals for the year (total officer count is essentially flat year-to-date), the department can fund this from budget savings rather than requiring an increase in its overall budget.

Let’s look at the recommendations in depth.


“Recruitment” can be thought of as the process the department uses to attract people to apply for positions within SPD (so everything that happens up until the time they submit an application). The workgroup has three recommendations for improvements.

  1. Improving the “Civilian to Sworn” pathway. SPD realized that it has been underutilizing the existing civilian employees of the City of Seattle — both civilians already within SPD’s ranks, and those in other city departments — as a source of potential recruits. New programs such as the Community Service Officers (CSOs) further increase those opportunities to build a pipeline. They also want to extend it to “connected youth”, young adults participating in City-funded programs and opportunities such as Seattle Promise, the Seattle Youth Employment Program, and SPD Explorers. They intend to conduct focus groups with city employees to understand their perceptions of SPD and its officers, then develop targeted recruitment strategies.
  2. Create a cadre of SPD officers who can serve as “recruitment ambassadors.” Responding to research that shows that the best recruiters for a department are often its own personnel, SPD will select and train a diverse set of officers to go to recruiting events, and to “leverage their alumni, social, and professional networks and day-to-day interactions with the public” to directly recruit job applicants.
  3.  Develop a civilian ride-along program. Currently the department does not have a ride-along program for prospective recruits, for people in the application pipeline, or even for “lateral hires” from other law enforcement jurisdictions who may want to learn firsthand what SPD officers do. The department will promote a “ride-along certified” program for officers, and streamline the process for a civilian to request and schedule a ride-along, with the priority being prospective applicants.

The hiring process for SPD has seventeen steps, and on average takes 184 days. The workgroup identified that the length of the process and the lack of feedback to applicants contributes to attrition from the pipeline, especially for millennials, who expect faster turnaround and more engagement during the hiring process.

They have four recommendations for improving the process:

4. “Leave No Candidate Behind.” This will be an effort to improve the overall hiring process to make it more “customer focused”, transparent, and better connected to applicants. They want it to leverage several communication tools, including email, text messages, and the SPD web site.

5. Speed up background checks. SPD’s current process is paper-based, time-consuming and burdensome to administer, with no electronic tools to manage the workflow of sending and receiving documents and schedule interviews. The department wants to modernize the process, with a workflow system and case management that automates parts of the process, utilizes electronic transmission of documents, and tracks applicants’ progress through the background check process.

6. Institute a more flexible testing process. The biggest drop-off in the hiring process — and it’s a huge one — is between filing an application and scheduling a written test (see the chart above). The workgroup reports that the applicants cite scheduling conflicts and challenges. Where many other law enforcement agencies use national testing organizations, which offer public-safety entrance exams on multiple dates in multiple cities, Seattle does it all itself. But that may change: the city will explore allowing third-party testing agencies to administer both written and physical tests, as well as allowing flexibility in the order in which the two tests are taken.

7. Give recruits an early opportunity to build connections with Seattle communities. While the SPD training process includes community policing, de-escalation, and communication skills, it’s mostly in a “clinical” setting, so at the end of training most officers haven’t had much exposure to actual Seattle communities, let alone the chance to build relationships with people in those communities. SPD intends to create a community-led initiative wherein members of community organizations and city-employee “experts” in community engagement lead trainings for new recruits to help them to increase their knowledge of the city, build cultural literacy, and create relationships.


The workgroup’s survey of SPD officers found several cited sources of frustration and low morale, inclduing:

  • a perceived lack of support and understanding from city officials and SPD command staff;
  • frustration with accountability systems;
  • limited opportunity to provide feedback on policies and procedures; and
  • confusion with how law enforcement’s “success” is defined today.

The workgroup has five recommendations:

8. “Clear my Card.” Offices let the workgroup know that it bothers them when complaints filed against them that were not sustained remain indefinitely on their “officer card,” the document used internally to inform promotion decisions and other personnel-related activities. According to SPD, 91% of all complaints against officers are ultimately not sustained, either because they were unfounded, the officers’ behavior was found to be “lawful and proper,” or there were mitigating circumstances (in which case the officer is usually referred to additional training).  Today, however, they are listed on the officer’s card simply as “not sustained.” The city will be looking to list the reason for not sustaining the complaint to better inform people reading the officer’s card, and they will also look to remove “not sustained” complaints after the required retention period for the records has passed.

Those of us who have had traffic tickets age off our driving record can appreciate the value of not having the past follow us forever — especially when we were found not to have done anything wrong. That said, it’s also important for the Office of Professional Accountability (OPA) and the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) to be able to see and investigate patterns of complaints and how they are handled, so effort by Seattle to “clear the card” that deletes underlying data would be problematic.  In this case the devil is in the details; according to SPD the underlying complaint data and the incidents they related to will be unchanged; only the data that is used to populate the officer’s card will be modified. But that doesn’t guarantee that the underlying data is stored in a form that allows OPA and OIG to extract and analyze patterns. OPA will be responsible for implementing this recommendation, so fortunately it will be in a good position to ensure that it’s done correctly.

9. Bureau advisory councils. Officers complained to the workgroup that SPD management doesn’t ask front-line officers for input on new policies, or solicit feedback on policies and procedures once they are implemented. SPD’s response is to create an advisory council within each of the department’s bureaus to provide guidance and feedback. The recommendation suggests that the Patrol Advisory Council should be implemented first since that is the bureau currently seeing the highest number of resignations.

10. “Step Into Our Shoes” program. To respond to the perception that elected officials and SPD command staff are disconnected from the realities of front-line work, a new program will create opportunities for them to gain first-hand exposure to life as an SPD patrol officer. Command staff will answer calls with a patrol officer each quarter, and hold “office days” once a month at different precincts. Elected officials and other staff from the Mayor’s Office will have the opportunity to tour an SPD facilities tour, observe a training class, and complete a ride-along within their first six months on the job.

11. Developing “people leaders” among the sergeant cohort. SPD notes that while patrol officers are managed by sergeants, those sergeants are promoted into that supervisor role not because of ability or interest in being a manager, but by passing a knowledge test. In response to this problem, SPD will be work with its HR department and the Public Safety Civil Service Commission to revise the civil service promotion process to assess people management potential. It will also create new management training programs for sergeants and create peer-cohort opportunities to discuss and reflect on management responsibilities.

12. “Wellness first” schedules.  Currently, patrol officers work 9-hour shifts four days in a row, followed by two days off.  There are several problems with this. First, it’s hard to arrange childcare with a 6-day week when the rest of the world is on a 7-day schedule. Second, since officers are often required to testify in court on their days off, a 4-on/2-off schedule makes it difficult for officers to get regular “down time” and spend regular quality time with their families.  Officers also complained that the standard shift times are inconvenient, particularly First Watch (3am to 12 noon) and Third Watch (7pm to 4am). They disrupt officers’ circadian rhythms, and the start time for first watch and end time for third watch full during peak activity during weekends. According to the workgroup report, changes to patrol shift hours was the most common request from officers they gathered input from.

In contrast, many other law enforcement agencies have moved to a schedule of four 10-hour days followed by three days off.  According to the workgroup, studies show that this schedule results in officers getting more sleep, reporting higher quality of work life, and working less overtime. Adopting the schedule might also help SPD with its recruiting efforts. However, adopting it will require negotiating it with SPOG, the police officers’ union. It will also require more officers, since they will be working fewer hours per week — putting even more stress on the recruiting and hiring efforts.

Implementation of two of the twelve recommendations will start in the fourth quarter of this year; the others will be spread across the first three quarters of 2020 — assuming that the City Council approves the budget.

In addition to the twelve recommendations, SPD also announced today that they will be pursing a thirteenth: “Best Dressed in Blue”: obtaining more comfortable uniforms for officers.

Here is the text of the email that SPD Chief Carmen Best sent to SPD staff today announcing the new initiatives.

All –

Later today, I will stand with Mayor Jenny Durkan as we announce several significant investments and initiatives aimed at supporting you, the women and men of the Seattle Police Department.

Everywhere I go, I proudly proclaim that the Seattle Police Department provides the best police services in the nation. That is because of each of you.

The reality is that the SPD, as well as police departments across the country, is in the midst of a staffing crisis. As new applicants dramatically dropped last year and resignations increased, a city team was formed to gather your ideas and learn from other departments. They talked to more than 100 members of the SPD to try and get to the core reasons why people were leaving and why applications decreased.

You were honest with this team. One thing that was heard loud and clear: this city, and its elected officials, need to make it better known that you have their support.

There are more recommendations in the full report, many aimed at getting more people into this department to back you up, but I wanted you to hear directly from me, first, on the efforts to assist you, right now, in doing your work.

Please know this is only a first step. The Mayor is committing additional resources in her budget to implement these recommendations. This is an ongoing dialogue, one that’s critically important to the entire city. 


The team clearly heard that the way current schedules shift each week is challenging, and that the limited days off do not provide enough downtime and predictability for officers.
The team recommended adopting a compressed schedule of 4/10’s or alternatives that provide patrol officers with at least three consecutive days off.
Because changing the patrol schedule is a dramatic shift, this will take careful planning and conversations with the unions.

Clear my Card

The vast majority of Patrol Officer OPA complaints (91% in 2018) are not sustained.
Officers report feeling the presence of these unsustained allegations, or investigations, in their file may impact future work opportunities or other OPA investigations.
OPA leadership is responsive to this feedback and are evaluating this proposal.

Step Into Our Shoes

Officers stated an interest in educating elected leaders and department leadership about the current demands of the daily work of a police officer.
Every quarter, command staff will ride with officers. Command staff also will regularly work in the precincts.
There also will also be opportunities for all elected officials, and appointed staff, to complete a ride-along within their first six months on the job.

Best Dressed in Blue

Getting more durable and comfortable patrol uniforms is something the team heard repeatedly.
SPD is currently evaluating new Class B uniforms. A team is looking at three options where the materials would be rip-stop and the jackets would work under load-bearing vests.
Again, thank you for all you do. You protect and serve with compassion, humility and integrity. You are incredible people who make a difference every day.

Chief Carmen Best

It’s worth pointing out that while all twelve recommendations seem sound, they won’t solve all of SPD’s hiring and retention issues. The department is still under a consent decree, and with Judge Robart finding the department out of compliance in May, there is no clear end-date when it will get out from under the consent decree’s shadow. It also doesn’t yet understand how its hiring process manages to take 184 days from beginning to end on average; it had more research to do before it can start working across the board to fix that. And with other law enforcement agencies competing with SPD for new recruits, both hiring and retention will continue to be hard work.

If you find my reporting valuable, please consider making a contribution to support my work. Even just $1 a month helps. Thanks!