“SPD is in a staffing crisis.” That is how Deputy Mayor Mike Fong kicked off a Council hearing this morning on a proposed $5.4 million cut to SPD’s 2021 budget. According to Fong, SPD has lost more than 200 officers over the past thirteen months, leaving patrol shortages in nearly every precinct and jeopardizing the city’s compliance with the 2012 Consent Decree. “We are not budgeted or staffed to sustain an acceptable level of community safety services in the city,” he stated, requesting that the City Council give careful consideration to SPD Chief Adrian Diaz’s plea to hold onto the funds in his department.
SCC Insight has written previously on the history and context of this proposed budget trim. In short: SPD came back at the end of last year and asked for an additional $5.4 million due to unexpected expenses, including separation pay for the higher than expected attrition from the department. The Council, in no mood to face the political backlash from the left if it increased SPD’s budget, argued that if SPD hadn’t overspent on overtime in 2020 then it would have had the funds to cover the $5.4 million. In the end, they covered the request to close out the books for 2020, but with a promise that they would reduce SPD’s 2021 budget by the same amount and divert those funds into the Participatory Budgeting pot.
Herbold subsequently drafted a bill that would remove $5.4 million in salary budget from SPD, which would come out of salary savings due to the continued higher-than-expected attrition from the department. Last month Herbold announced that she was slow-walking the bill through her committee, after Judge James Robert warned had “harsh words” for the Council and warned it not to cut SPD’s budget before legitimate alternatives were up and running. The court-appointed police monitor recently penned an op-ed in the Seattle Times saying that he too had concerns over the Council’s hack-and-slash approach to budgeting for the police department.
At Herbold’s last committee meeting, Council staff presented a summary of the bill, potential issues, and a memo from SPD suggesting other high-priority uses for the $5.4 million if it was allowed to hold on to it. Last week the City Attorney’s Office sent a memo to the police monitor and the DOJ summarizing the cuts to SPD’s budget that the Council and Mayor have made since last summer, as well as this proposed additional cut.
Today’s meeting agenda included time for SPD to present its best case for holding on to the money, with Herbold intending for amendments and a vote on the bill to occur at her next meeting two weeks from now.
Since last summer when SPD came under intense criticism for its violent response to protests, it has generally approached meetings with the Council with its tail between its legs and a defensive and somewhat conciliatory tone. But not today. It showed up with two Deputy Mayors, Mike Fong and Tiffany Washington, who both delivered blunt assessments of the dire staffing situation that SPD finds itself in, saying that the department’s understaffing means that Seattleites “don’t feel safe and supported” and jeopardizes compliance with the Consent Decree not currently staffed to deliver on its commitments.
In his opening statement, Chief Diaz doubled down on these comments, saying, “The staffing losses some seemed to hope for have happened,” and “The work has not changed, yet I have over 200 fewer officers to deploy to the work.” Diaz emphasized his view that the budget instability caused by the Council’s ongoing incremental cuts to SPD’s budget make it difficult to manage his department’s budget and to formulate a plan to redeploy resources to mitigate the worst impacts of the staffing shortages. (Diaz’s full opening statement is included at the end of this article)
SPD presented a summary of the annual number of separations from the department (including retirements, firings, voluntary departures, and other reasons people leave) since 1998. Two thing immediately jump out: first, 2020 saw an enormous increase in separations. Second, separations were slowly decreasing from 1999 through 2010, then they steadily rose from 2011 through 2019. 2011 was when the DOJ investigation into biased policing by SPD began, and the Consent Decree was signed in 2012.
SPD’s main argument for the negative impact of the reduced staffing is the department’s 911 call response times. Calls to 911 are prioritized into tiers based on urgency and seriousness, and the department has a goal of a median response time to the highest-tier “priority 1” calls of seven minutes, and to “priority 2” calls of fifteen minutes. SPD met that goal for Priority 1 for for 2020 when looking at the entire year — barely — though the median response time ticked up.
However, looking at it month-to-month, a different picture appears. Starting with the summer months and then extending through the end of the year, for the final seven months of 2020 SPD missed its Priority 1 median response time goal every month. Likewise, it missed its Priority-2 median response time goal as well. In early fall, Diaz moved 100 officers from other parts of the Patrol division into the 911 response unit to push response times down — and it was working. But in December, as the impact of sustained high attrition swamped those 100 additional officers, response times began to tick back up again.
SPD’s analysis goes deeper. The department’s 911 response unit switches to what is called “priority call status” during major incidents or when staffing constraints limit the ability to respond to calls. When “priority call status” is activated, people calling 911 with issues that are not Priority 1 or 2 are informed that an officer may not respond in a short period of time, or indeed at all. As the chart below shows, according to SPD the number of days that at least one precinct was forced to invoke “priority call status” has risen each year since 2016, and in 2020 hit a record 221 days.
SPD said that its ranks are thin enough now that a single “shots fired” report, which typically sees 5-6 police cars respond, can deplete a precinct’s officer contingent enough to trigger “priority call status.”
SPD staff said in today’s meeting that there is so little extra capacity remaining that could be redeployed to 911 response that if the department loses 50 more officers, then according to their models the median Priority 1 response time — already higher that the goal of seven minutes — will increase by another three minutes.
Diaz asserted that the staffing shortages put the department at risk of meeting its obligations to provide public safety: both the one in the City Charter that requires SPD to “maintain adequate police protection in each district of the City,” and also the obligations under the Consent Decree to properly resource several of the department’s units including Patrol, Professional Standards and Training Collaborative Policing, and Officer Wellness and Early Intervention.
Diaz did not, however, ask the Council to let him hire more officers. Instead, he made two requests: let him keep the $5.4 million to mitigate the negative impacts of the staffing shortage, and stop changing his budget so that he can have certainty about the resources at his disposal throughout the year. Diaz believes that, despite the challenging situation, there are tactics available to mitigate many of the issues caused by being short-staffed; but he emphasized that those tactics have a cost, and he can only pursue them if he knows that he can pay for them. Some of the tactics include technology investments for internal data collection and analysis, capacity training, and increasing and improving the public’s ability to interact with SPD. They also include filling some of the civilian roles in SPD that have been left open for the past year during the hiring freeze, including Crime Prevention Coordinators and Community Service Officers. The Council has less objections to hiring civilian positions within SPD, as opposed to sworn officers, though it is more likely to see those positions transferred to a new Department of Community Safety once it is brought online.
Diaz concluded where he began: reiterating his view that that there is a staffing crisis due to high attrition, he needs the $5.4 million to mitigate the negative impacts, and the ongoing budget instability caused by the Council’s continued hacking at SPD’s budget not only makes it difficult for him to manage his department but it also creates an ongoing sense of uncertainty that is contributing to the exodus of officers.
While the Council members did pick through the numbers a bit, there was relatively little push back on Diaz’s position today. In part, that was because attendance was light; in fact, the meeting ended abruptly shortly before 1pm when Councilmember Morales was dropped from the Zoom meeting and the committee no longer had the quorum required to conduct business.before that happened, Councilmember Herbold expressed her “willingness to not be rigid” on the cuts. She expressed particular interest in funding some specific resources within SPD, including:
- Community Service Officer and Crime Prevention Coordinator civilian positions;
- positions to ease the enormous backlog of Public Document Requests (PDRs) in SPD’s queue — though she said she also wants to shift some of those requests to OPA and to leverage Seattle IT to process the email-related PDRs;
- resources to address issues that the Office of the Inspector General has raised with SPD’s evidence storage practices.
Notably, before the committee meeting had even concluded, Councilmember Pedersen issued a press statement calling for the bill to be postponed:
“People calling 9-1-1 for emergencies need a rapid response, but today’s disturbing data shows response times going in the wrong direction in the wake of Seattle police officers leaving our department in droves. This newly released data on police response times for emergency calls, which I requested as part of our budget process last fall, demonstrates how important it is to consider all the potential consequences before making major policy and budget changes. I believe this troubling trend of slower response times to 9-1-1 emergency calls is another reason City Council should postpone further cuts to the department until effective emergency response alternatives are in place and the police union contract is reformed to save money while retaining more officers.”
The bill will be brought up for consideration again at Herbold’s next committee meeting on March 23rd, at which point she expects to vote on possible amendments and to vote the bill out of committee.
Chief Diaz’s opening statement at the Council session today:
Good morning Chairwoman Herbold, Council President Gonzalez and other City Council members.
Thank you for the opportunity to be here today to go over our current plan to attempt to mitigate many of the effects of the staffing crisis we are experiencing as a department and as a city.
Last week I know I, and I believe we all, had a moment of joy and hope when President Biden announced the accelerated timeline for having enough vaccine for every adult in the country.
This means we are on the cusp of some version of normal returning – with that comes the likelihood of the increased social interactions we all miss so dearly, in-person commerce, major events, traffic even, and travel and tourism. It also means a likely increase in some types of criminal behavior and calls for service.
As the Chief of Police – the person charged with running the police department – I must balance hiring and staffing needs, operational needs, equipment needs, training needs, and technology needs. At the start of each year I work with the public safety professionals in the department to best determine how we will address the needs of the department and how we will prepare for the unknown.
By their very definition, it is impossible to precisely plan for unknowns. But that work is further complicated right now by an ever-changing budget.
If, moving forward, the department is expected to meet ever-evolving demands, while confronting significantly reduced staffing – now indexed to matching reductions in available budget – SPD will have to say no to requests for services – something we already have had to do this year.
I also am very concerned, based on what I hear when I speak with officers, and what I read when I review exit interviews – that continued cuts to the budget – especially those not matched to efforts to reduce immediate demands on the department – will only continue to drive staffing losses.
At this point, it is a self-perpetuating cycle.
The best way to stop the losses, and to drive hiring, is to stop the ad hoc cutting of the budget. The staffing losses some seemed to hope for have happened – not through any informed process of rethinking or re-imagining the work we do – My concern is that if we don’t change course – these losses will continue and we will have a staffing crisis beyond mitigation.
I know this department is filled with amazing professionals. I want all of those folks to stay. But we have lost some amazing people, most painfully to jurisdictions just across the city line.
I know I have heard questions about why is the department talking about what it can’t do anymore or why it needs its full budget. That calls are down, or that crime is down.
The reality is – a lot is not getting done – and that is while we are still under pandemic restrictions. We are in priority call status too often. Too many investigations are being inactivated. Trainings have been reduced, delayed, or shortened. Sustained problem solving is basically on pause. And valuable civilian hires are on hold. I could put much of this into action, if I knew, that we could address needs with either successful new budget adds, or with budget savings.
To ensure we could respond to emergency calls as close to our goal response times as possible – I had to reassign individuals to patrol. If that step had not been taken I have little doubt our response times would be through the roof and we would be at priority call status almost every day.
But, that came with a cost. There are no more problem-solving focused teams – I had to reassign the Community Policing Teams and put off re-hiring a Crime Prevention Coordinator.
The Anti-Crime Teams, so essential in addressing on-going crime issues and hot spots – often working with partners to address underlying issues – are back in Patrol.
Half of the Traffic Unit, is back in Patrol.
Some detectives are back in Patrol.
That effort was to fill the gap – a gap that is re-opening as we continue to lose officers. It is no longer feasible to pull more people back to patrol as a response.
Then there are the units who have lost staff, and because of the broader staffing crisis, I have not been able to backfill to meet their needs.
Our Professional Standards Bureau, including the Training Unit, are down across the board. These are all units essential to ensuring we can meet the administrative obligations of the consent decree.
People have suggested re-assigning a few people here, moving some other folks there. At this point, that is nothing more than robbing Peter to pay Paul.
The work has not changed yet I have over 200 fewer officers to deploy to the work. This is both not feasible and counter-productive. We are exhausting our officers. Their wellness is essential to their ability to provide the type of police service the community expects. I need to be able to commit both more sworn and civilian resources to our such needed wellness efforts – but I can’t do that when I don’t know what budget I have while our staffing challenges also intensify.
We have solutions and opportunities to help mitigate these constraints, but those opportunities come with costs. We believe we can cover these costs in our budget, while also advancing the broader work to think about alternatives that eventually can help share the work.
Today, we hope to make it clear where the police department currently stands and why it is essential that we use our existing budget appropriation to be more efficient, more agile, more supportive of our current employees, and more attractive to potential hires.
To achieve all of this, I need to be able to manage the department, and right now the instability in our budget is causing massive instability in the department, including in our staffing. As I noted – we do not know what 2021 will look like, but right now I know that we have no flexibility, and we cannot count on using any salary savings to help address these losses.
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