SPD budget changes, revisited: some corrections, a better explanation, and a last-minute change in the works

Last Friday I posted a summary of the Council’s budget deliberations last week, including where they landed on SPD’s 2021 budget. Since then I’ve had several email exchanges with the Council’s staff, as they pointed out some inaccuracies in the numbers I posted (and they humbly admitted that they didn’t really explain it all very well).

The Council’s unwillingness to try to impose a hiring freeze on SPD in 2021 was widely (but not always accurately) reported over the past few days, and it has created blowback from advocacy groups over the notion that SPD might actually grow in size next year. But the situation is very complicated, and unfortunately my best effort to shed some light on the subject fell short.

Here is another attempt at explaining SPD’s budget, the Council’s changes, and their 11th hour attempt to placate their critics.


Let’s start by going back to budget school. SPD’s staffing budget isn’t one number; it’s several related ones that are frequently tossed around and commingled.

  • “position authority” – the maximum number of officers that could be hired if there is money to pay them. While it’s officially something that the City Council needs to budget for, in practice it’s not that relevant to understanding SPD’s budget at the moment. That’s because the real constraint on SPD is the amount of money they have to pay people.
  • “salary funding” – the dollars allocated for SPD to pay its sworn officers.
  • “funded FTEs” – the average number of full-time employees drawing paychecks over the course of the year. This is a proxy for salary funding: the number of funded FTEs multiplied by the average cost per FTE (salary + benefits + other costs) gives you SPD’s salary funding (approximately). This includes both trainees and officers who have completed their training.
  • “fully trained officers” – the number of officers who have completed training and can be assigned to active duty. This is the subset of SPD officers who have completed all necessary training. At any given time, some of them may be on leave and not immediately available for active duty.
  • “officers in service” – the number of fully trained officers who are not on leave and can be scheduled for duty shifts. It excludes officers on leave for military service, parental leave, medical leave, or other arranged absences.

Officially the City Council holds the purse strings for the city, and it sets two budget numbers for SPD: its position authority, and its total staffing budget (using funded FTEs as a proxy). But it ends up discussing all of these numbers as it tries to understand the implications to the department’s staffing of setting these two numbers.

Here’s a table from one the Council staff’s memos, detailing the SPD officer funding, hiring, attrition and fully trained officers going back to 2012 and with projections for the next two years.

2020 has been a crazy year. Originally SPD was expected to increase its funded FTEs by 30, with a net increase to its staff of 13. But when COVID hit and the economy tanked, SPD’s attrition went to almost zero as people held on to stable employment. By April, SPD was reporting that for the first time in many years it looked like it was on track to be fully staffed. And the the murder of George Floyd, calls for defunding the police, and a summer of violent police responses to protests changed everything, and turned public opinion broadly against SPD. Since September, the department has seen a dramatic increase in attrition, and it projects that it will end the year with a net decrease of 79 officers. As a token measure, over the summer the Council revised the 2020 budget and dropped SPD’s funded FTE from 1,497 to 1,422 — much of which was just recovering excess funding for positions that SPD was no longer on a path to fill.

Mayor Durkan’s proposed 2021 budget originally called for SPD to have “position authority” for 1,450 FTE — though the department’s staffing plan admitted that it would not be able to hire enough people (given attrition) to be able to spend more than 1,400, so it only has 1,400 funded FTE. It projects that it can hire 114 people next year and will lose 89 through attrition, a net increase of 25.

The Council took it from there last week: it clawed back the position authority for the 50 additional funded FTEs plus 43 more (with accompanying funding), leaving 1,357 funded FTE. It also padlocked money equivalent to an additional 35 FTEs behind a proviso requiring the city to start the process for laying off 35 officers “out of order”; that’s not a significant number, but it is a test case for figuring out whether out-of-order layoffs are really a possibility (the legal basis is untested). That brings the total funded FTEs, excluding the positions slated for layoffs, down to 1,322.

What the Council’s budget didn’t do was to impose a hiring freeze on SPD in 2021; last week after protracted debate it explicitly rejected a proposed amendment that would do exactly that. As things now stand, while the department’s funded FTE number at the end of 2021 will be down from 2020, its count of fully trained officers could in fact be higher than where it will end this year.

The funded FTE numbers don’t perfectly correlate with the number of fully trained FTEs since there will be some attrition from the pipeline as well, but they are pretty close. Here’s a graph of what the Council’s budget means for fully trained FTEs, as excerpted from a Council staff memo. Because SPD’s hiring pipeline is about a year, a hiring freeze in 2021 essentially means no new hires in 2022 either; so the downward trend of fully-trained officers in 2021 continues in 2022.

This graph demonstrates one of my information visualization pet peeves: nonzero baselines that exaggerate change. Here’s the same data, graphed appropriately, which shows much more clearly the scale of change represented by a potential hiring freeze:

In terms of changes to SPD’s overall staffing levels it’s not that big of a deal, especially for 2021. But a hiring freeze would have other potential repercussions on the department. Interim Chief Diaz controls how his officers are deployed to cover the department’s various responsibilities, and earlier this fall he moved 100 officers from specialty and investigative units to patrol in order to keep 911 call response times from getting worse despite the attrition from the department. But more recently Diaz has commented that internal transfers would be more difficult moving forward, as many of the people remaining in specialty unit have not worked a patrol shift in several years and would need to go through retraining before being redeployed. And the combination of unplanned attrition and a hiring freeze leave Diaz without the ability to plug critical holes in the department’s staffing needs.

Further, it’s not at all clear that the Council is legally empowered to impose a hiring freeze on the executive branch. With the separation of powers codified in the City Charter, the Council has the authority to set the budget for SPD, with some ability to say how those funds may be spent. But as much as it might like to micro-manage the operations of the executive branch at times, there are real limits on its ability to do so without infringing upon the powers of the separately elected head of that branch, the Mayor.

Nevertheless, coverage of last week’s budget deliberations highlighted the Council’s unwillingness to impose a hiring freeze in the face of the possible growth (albeit tiny) of SPD’s total number of fully-trained officers next year, That has elicited a heated response from some of the advocacy groups who have pushed for deeper, immediate cuts to SPD and were already dissatisfied with the fact that the Council is cutting less than 20%.

In response, the Council now has on its agenda for tomorrow a last-minute budget amendment that would further reduce the funded FTE count next year by 14, based upon an assumption that the Mayor’s projection for attrition, at 89, is too low. It increases the expected attrition to 114 and shrinks the funded FTE to 1,308 (assuming the 35 layoffs happen), which is projected to decrease the number of fully-trained officers ever so slightly to 1,286. There still wouldn’t be a hiring freeze, but at least the Council members can tell the defunding advocates that SPD will not, in fact, grow next year. And the extra $2 million in payroll savings will be added to the amount to be invested in community-led safety programs.



To recap:  the Mayor first proposed 1,400 funded FTEs for SPD officers in 2021, but it looks like when the Council is done with the budget tomorrow the final figure will be 1,308. That should keep the number of fully-trained officers flat at around 1,290: higher than if a hiring freeze was imposed, but lower than proceeding without one and without any other adjustments.



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One comment

  1. I could certainly be wrong but it’s my impression that the sheer complexity of the budget process and all the terminology required to understand it is NOT fully understood by those who favor the use of a blunt instrument to “Defund the police by at least 50%” if I have that slogan right. The emotions that drive those beliefs are valid and need to be heard. Then non-emotional and fact based deliberation must be carried out to make the best decisions for all of us.

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