Why Seattle’s police staff crisis is worse than you think
January 28, 2022
Seattle’s police staffing crisis is worse than you probably think. It’s no secret that on top of public safety concerns the city of Seattle has a police staffing crisis. But what’s often unseen are the number of quality officers in the area who might have joined but didn’t because of the toxic environment that currently exists.
That includes, Andrew Lincowski, who got his doctorate in Seattle and returned to law enforcement following the 2020 nation-wide rioting. However, when it came time to choose where, he picked Casper, Wyoming.
Speaking to the Casper Star Tribune, he didn’t mince words over why.
“People want to come here from Seattle or Portland or Illinois or wherever, all these places I wouldn’t work in. You couldn’t pay me enough to go work in some of those places, the anti-police sentiment, the rioters … I want to live somewhere where I’m not worried about that stuff being really bad.”
Casper now “has a growing cohort of police officers who came here specifically for a place where they feel their job is respected.”
Were Seattle a more attractive city, men like Lincowski might have chosen to work there. Instead, they are going elsewhere at a time when the department needs not just more cops on the street, but top-notch candidates.
To be sure, this isn’t to besmirch the good officers within SPD who despite the situation have chosen to stay due to a sense of loyalty or because they care and don’t want to give up. But if the problems aren’t fixed, how much longer will they stay? When they leave, who then is going to come work for the city?
Many of those officers have already left. Between 2020-2021 the Seattle Police Department lost 20 percent of its officers amid the Defund the Police movement that swept through the country. On top of that, another 100 officers were removed last year for not complying with then-Mayor Jenny Durkan’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate, leaving patrols unfilled.
But while the Seattle City Council in November narrowly rejected a proposal to eliminate even more positions within the department, the crisis is far from over. It will require urgent and decisive action by Mayor Bruce Harrell and others in city hall that involves more than just spending additional tax dollars.
Fundamentally, a cultural change is required.
SPD has been understaffed for years, with the number of total officers have remained stagnant even as the city population has grown. Cities like Washington D.C. have 54 cops for every 10,000 residents, three times that of Seattle. According to a Seattle Times article published in November 2020, Seattle had 18.5 officers per 10,000 residents, while the average ratio for the 50 largest jurisdictions is 26.9 officers. SPD had said it should have a minimum of 1,400 officers compared to the 1,000 or so it has now.
An understaffed department takes a heavy mental, physical and emotional toll on officers forced to work overtime, but nothing is perhaps more devastating to their morale than a toxic, hostile working environment originating from those in charge.
And that is precisely what the Seattle City Council has created in recent years.
One of the worst offenders is Councilmember Kshama Sawant, who recently survived a recall effort. Shortly after a deadly shooting by two Seattle officers of an armed suspect while trying to make an arrest, Sawant told a crowd in front of the SPD building that it was “just a blatant murder at the hands of the police.” This profoundly inflammatory statement didn’t just come days after the incident before an investigation was completed, but it claimed the shooting reflected on the entire department rather than the conduct of two individuals.
Further, King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg ultimately declined to charge the officers, stating they “were confronted with an armed suspect they believed was going for a gun when they tried to arrest him for a felony, they were entitled to use defense.” When the exonerated officers sued Sawant for libel, the council approved using taxpayer dollars to pay for her legal expenses.
The message sent was clear: If you’re an officer and get involved in a shooting, you’re automatically guilty. If it turns out you’re cleared of wrongdoing, those who falsely accused you will get all the support that you needed.
Then, in 2020 police were ordered to abandon a precinct station and watch as rioters wreaked havoc on private and public property in downtown while setting up an “autonomous zone” that eventually lead to several killings.
According to a 2020 Crosscut article:
For some officers…it’s become a symbol of ineptitude in department and city leadership. Inside the West Precinct, where East Precinct employees have been temporarily housed, officers have printed off Mahaffey’s June 7 email and posted it on bulletin boards and outside the station in an act of protest, according to sources and photographs provided to Crosscut.
One employee posted a sign inside the West Precinct that reads “55,311 days since SPD surrendered a precinct.” The large figure is then crossed out and replaced with the number of days since officers left, a spin on the signs seen at construction sites marking the number of days since a serious accident.
To add insult to injury, last year Seattle City Councilmembers had the gall to blame Interim Chief Adrian Diaz for the mass exodus of officers.
Why would anyone come work for a city like this unless they had no other choice? The department will have to take whoever applies. With tensions high between the police and parts of the Seattle community, the last thing the city needs are officers who lack the competency needed to properly respond to incidents that demand split-second, life-and-death decision-making.
Seattle needs high quality officers, but it will have to persuade them that its better than any other potential region. It’s doubtful anyone would try to make that claim today.
Moreover, if things aren’t done to address this then the perception of Seattle as an anti-cop city will remain even if reforms are made. It has to be made adamantly clear that Seattle has changed in this regard, for the better.
That change first needs to come within City Hall. This is an opportunity for Mayor Harrell to demonstrate true leadership by restoring the relationship between the city and department. That’s done not just with the words he uses, but how he responds to councilmembers like Sawant who spout ignorant, toxic, and hateful speech that erodes trust and goodwill. At the same time, voters who want to see improved policing need to hold their elected officials accountable for their behavior that drives away good people.
Making Seattle a desirable city for officers here and elsewhere to work at will take time. Which is why Harrell and others need to start now, if they’re truly serious about making things right.
Contact Mayor Harrell and the Seattle Council, and demand they commit to restoring the relationship between City Hall and the SPD.
Mayor Bruce Harrell
Tammy J. Morales
Andrew J. Lewis